Wyden, Eshoo press publishers over library e-book contracts

From The Hill:

The largest book publishing companies in the U.S. are facing pressure from Democrats over e-book lending contracts with libraries that advocates and librarians have criticized.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) sent letters to the publishers, Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, on Thursday asking for detailed responses about the contracts and any restrictions on deals made with libraries for e-book licensing.

“Many libraries face financial and practical challenges in making e-books available to their patrons, which jeopardizes their ability to fulfill their mission,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is our understanding that these difficulties arise because e-books are typically offered under more expensive and limited licensing agreements, unlike print books that libraries can typically purchase, own, and lend on their own terms.”
Wyden and Eshoo underscored the importance of remote access to e-books because the COVID-19 pandemic prolonged school and library closures.

Unlike with physical books, which libraries can purchase and lend out for as long as copies hold up, libraries have to adhere to conditions in licensing agreements that constrain how long they can keep e-books in circulation. Librarians and library groups have called out the licensing agreements for prices they say are too high.

Wyden and Eshoo call for the publishers to share data, including the average price of physical copies of books sold to consumers and the average price of e-book licensing to libraries, on their 100 most sold or licensed works in 2020.

Lia Holland, the campaigns and communications director for Fight for the Future, said the group was “thrilled” to see lawmakers taking action on the issue. 

Fight for the Future has been advocating for greater library access to a wide array of digital books. Holland called the “licensing schemes” on digital books “restrictive and expensive.” 

“We hope that legislators will take swift action to ensure perpetual access to knowledge and diverse voices for everyone,” Holland said in a statement. 

. . . .

The Democrats did not target Amazon with their letter. The tech giant until recently had even more restrictions in place — prohibiting Amazon published e-books to be sold to libraries for lending.

The company reached a deal in May to make all Amazon Publishing titles available through the DPLA Exchange, a library-centered content marketplace. Library patrons can access the titles through the SimplyE e-reader app.

Link to the rest at The Hill

Ebooks Are an Abomination

Note: PG posted this less than a month ago. He’s reposting it today because:

  1. He forgot he posted it before (but was politely reminded in by WO in a comment).
  2. It’s a classic in the I-hate-ebooks genre.
  3. He posted a lot of calumnies directed at ebooks today and was on some sort of ebook-calumny roll and couldn’t stop himself.
  4. Despite having taken all his meds today, he’s probably devolving into something slightly above primeval soup and needs to watch some baseball to bring his mind back to its usual level of functionality.

From The Atlantic:

Perhaps you’ve noticed that ebooks are awful. I hate them, but I don’t know why I hate them. Maybe it’s snobbery. Perhaps, despite my long career in technology and media, I’m a secret Luddite. Maybe I can’t stand the idea of looking at books as computers after a long day of looking at computers as computers. I don’t know, except for knowing that ebooks are awful.

If you hate ebooks like I do, that loathing might attach to their dim screens, their wonky typography, their weird pagination, their unnerving ephemerality, or the prison house of a proprietary ecosystem. If you love ebooks, it might be because they are portable, and legible enough, and capable of delivering streams of words, fiction and nonfiction, into your eyes and brain with relative ease. Perhaps you like being able to carry a never-ending stack of books with you wherever you go, without having to actually lug them around. Whether you love or hate ebooks is probably a function of what books mean to you, and why.

When discussed in the present tense, ebooks means Amazon Kindle ebooks. Competitors are out there, including tablets such as the iPad and the various software that can display books in electronic format. Precursors are also many. Ebooks appeared on Palm handhelds in the late ’90s. Microsoft made a reader for its equivalent, Windows CE. The first commercial e-ink reader was made in 2004 by Sony, not Amazon, although you’ve probably never heard of it. Barnes & Noble still makes the Nook, a Kindle competitor that seems like the Betamax of ebook readers. Before all of these, it was always possible to read on computers, portable or not. Adobe’s PDF format, first released in the early ’90s, made it easy to create and share print-formatted documents, viewable on any platform with a PDF reader. And you have been able to scroll through Word (or WordPerfect or WordStar or plain text) documents for as long as computers have existed, even if few would call such an experience reading.

Stop and reread that last clause, because the key to understanding why you love or hate ebooks is pressurized into it. Agreeing that books are a thing you read is easy enough. But what it means to read, what the experience of reading requires and entails, and what makes it pleasurable or not, is not so easy to pin down.

. . . .

Consider, for example, the Kindle DX, a 2009 follow-up to the original, 2007 Kindle reader. The DX’s 9.7-inch screen was 50 percent bigger than the original’s six-inch display, and the newer model could also show PDFs. Seen as a potential disruptor of technical, academic, and other specialized reading uses, the DX was a failure, at least in comparison with the paperback-size original Kindle and its successful follow-ups, including the popular Paperwhite model. Students and technical readers didn’t want to consume documents on the gadget. By contrast, readers of genre fiction or business best sellers were more willing to shift their practices to a small, gray screen.

Reading is a relatively useless term. It describes a broad array of literacy practices, ranging from casually scanning social-media posts to perusing magazine articles such as this one to poring over the most difficult technical manuals or the lithest storytelling. You read instructions on elevators, prompts in banking apps, directions on highway signs. Metaphorically, you read situations, people’s faces, the proverbial room. What any individual infers about their hopes and dreams for an e-reader derives from their understanding of reading in the first place. You can’t have books without bookiness.

Bookiness. That’s the word Glenn Fleishman, a technology writer and longtime bookmaker, uses to describe the situation. “It’s the essence that makes someone feel like they’re using a book,” he told me. Like pornography or sandwiches, you know bookiness when you see it. Or feel it? Either way, most people can’t identify what it is in the abstract.

Fleishman and I took a swing at defining bookiness anyway. A book, we decided, is probably composed of bound pages, rather than loose ones. Those pages are probably made from paper, or leaves akin to paper. These pages are likely numerous, and the collection of pages is coherent, forming a totality. The order of that totality matters, but also the form of bound pages allows a reader random access to any page, via flipping and fanning. Books have spreads, made of a left (verso) and right (recto) side. You can look at both at once, and an open book has the topology of a valley, creating a space that you can go inside and be surrounded by, literally and figuratively. Some books are very large, but the ordinary sort is portable and probably handheld. That held object probably has a cover made of a different material from the leaves that compose its pages. A stapled report probably isn’t a book; a coil-bound one with plastic covers might be. A greeting card is probably not a book; neither is the staple-bound manual that came with your air fryer. Are magazines and brochures books? They might be, if we didn’t have special terms for the kind of books they are.

Whatever a book might be, all of the things that an average person might name a “book” evolved from an invention more than two millennia old, called a codex. Prior to the codex, reading and writing took place on scrolls—long, rolled sheets of paper (or vellum or papyrus)—and then on wax tablets, which a sharp stylus could imprint and its tapered end could erase. The ancient Romans sometimes connected wax tablets with leather or cords, suggesting a prototype of binding. Replacing the wax with leaves allowed many pages to be stacked atop one another, then sewn or otherwise bound together. Codices were first handwritten or copied, then made in multiples when the printing press emerged. I’m skipping over a lot more detail—a whole field, called book history, addresses this topic—but the result connects today’s best seller to hand-gilded illuminated manuscripts, the earliest records of the Gospels, and more. Two thousand years after the codex and 500 after the Gutenberg press, the book persists. If something better were to come along, you’d expect it to have done so by now. In other words, as far as technologies go, the book endures for very good reason. Books work.

Given the entrenched history of bookiness, a book is less a specific thing than an echo of the long saga of bookmaking—and an homage to the idea of a book bouncing around in our heads, individual and collective. That makes books different from other human technologies. People have always needed to eat, but methods of agriculture, preservation, and distribution have evolved. People have always wanted to get around, but transportation has unlocked faster and more specialized means of doing so. Ideas and information have also enjoyed technological change—cinema, television, and computing, to name a few, have altered expression. But when it comes to the gathering of words and images pressed first to pages and then between covers, the book has remained largely the same. That puts books on par with other super-inventions of human civilization, including roads, mills, cement, turbines, glass, and the mathematical concept of zero.

. . . .

If you have a high-quality hardbound book nearby, pick it up and look at the top and bottom edges of the binding, near the spine, with the book closed. The little stripey tubes you see are called head and tail bands (one at the top, one at the bottom). They were originally invented to reinforce stitched binding, to prevent the cover from coming apart from the leaves. Today’s mass-produced hardcover books are glued rather than sewn, which makes head and tail bands purely ornamental. And yet for those who might notice, a book feels naked without such details.

Now open the book and turn to its first pages to see another example of how print-book habits die hard. Find the first normal page. I bet it looks the same no matter the book: a mostly blank page showing the book’s title and author. If you turn again, you’ll see that it’s followed by the exact same page, but with more information. Why are both of these title pages here? The first one, luridly known as the bastard title (or half title), was created to protect the full title page behind it during the binding process. That was necessary because printers printed only the pages of a book, which individual readers would send to a binder to encase in leather covers, perhaps to match the rest of their library. That meant that the pages themselves would be cast about quite a bit during transit to and from these varied trades. After binding, some would even cut out the bastard title and paste it to the inside of the cover or to the spine, in order to help identify the book on a shelf. That risk and practice are long behind us, but like an appendix, the bastard title remains.

So do all manner of other peculiarities of form, including notations of editions on the verso (the flip side) of the full title page and the running headers all throughout that rename the book you are already reading. And yet removing any one of these features would, if just in a small way, erode the bookiness of a book.

One site of that erosion, which may help explain ebook reticence, can be found in self-published books. For people predisposed to sneer at the practice, a lack of editing or the absence of publisher endorsement and review might justify self-published works’ second-class status. That matter is debatable. More clear is the consequence of disintermediation: Nobody takes a self-published manuscript and lays it out for printing in a manner that conforms with received standards. And so you often end up with a perfect-bound Word doc instead of a book. That odd feeling of impropriety isn’t necessarily a statement about the trustworthiness of the writer or their ideas, but a sense of dissonance at the book as an object. It’s an eerie gestalt, a foreboding feeling of unbookiness.

A particular reader’s receptivity to ebooks, then, depends on the degree to which these objects conform to, or at least fail to flout, one’s idea of bookiness. But if you look back at the list of features that underlie that idea, ebooks embrace surprisingly few of them.

An ebook doesn’t have pages, for one. The Kindle-type book does have text, and that text might still be organized into sections and chapters and the like. But the basic unit of text in an ebook does not correspond with a page, because the text can be made to reflow at different sizes and in various fonts, as the user prefers. That’s why Amazon invented “locations” to track progress and orientation in a book. You’d think the matter displayed on an iPad screen would feel more familiar—it’s just pictures of actual pages—but oddly it often feels less like leaves of paper than its e-ink brethren does. The weird way you tap or push a whole image of a page to the side—it’s the uncanny valley of page turning, not a simulation or replacement of it.

The iPad’s larger screen also scales down PDF pages to fit, making the results smaller than they would be in print. It also displays simulated print margins inside the bezel margin of the device itself, a kind of mise en abyme that still can’t actually be used for the things margins are used for, such as notes or dog-ears. Ebooks of the Kindle or iPad sort don’t have facing pages either, eradicating the spatial immersion of print books. Random access, the ur-feature of the codex, isn’t possible, and search, bookmarking, and digital-annotation features can somehow make people with a predilection for skimming back and forth feel less oriented than they might in print. For those readers, ideas are attached to the physical memory of the book’s width and depth—a specific notion residing at the top of a recto halfway in, for example, like a friend lives around the block and halfway down.

Some aspects of bookiness do translate directly to ebooks, and particularly to the Kindle. The Kindle is highly portable and easily handheld. It’s small, about the size of a trade book—a format that Apple and other tablet makers more or less abandoned in favor of ever larger screens. The Kindle is also extremely light, making it easy to hold for long periods (something that can’t be said of any iPad). Before computerized books, nobody ever needed to specify that books are appealing because they don’t require electricity, but that’s an obvious corollary of portability; e-ink requires infrequent charging.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Paper Books vs eBooks Statistics, Trends and Facts – 2021

From TonerBuzz:

Paper books vs eBooks statistics show print is here to stay!

Dead Tree Editions Just Won’t Die!

Like the monster in a horror movie, print books just won’t die. The most recent paper books vs eBooks statistics, research, and surveys back this up.

Print books are here to stay!

Let’s look at the most important eBook vs print book statistics, key differences between print and e-books, and where American publishers are taking the industry.

Popularity Contest: Books Versus Print Books

Are print books still popular? You’d better believe it!

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on book consumption and book formats, traditional print is still the most popular reading format for both adults and children.

Survey says:

  • 72% of adults in the United States read a book in some format over the last year
  • 65% of respondents claimed they read a book in the last 12 months
  • 37% of Americans claim they only read print books
  • 28% say they read both print books and e-books
  • 7% say they only read e-books
Ebook vs print book statistics

Demographics: Reader vs E-Reader

Book reading demographics vary according to education and income level.

College graduates make up 90% of book readers, while only 61% of high school graduates read books.

Those who dropped out of school have an even lower readership rate – a mere 32%.

Economics goes hand-in-hand with education. Individuals earning over $75,000 a year make up 86% of readers, while well those earning less than $30,000 annually make up only 62%.

Physical books are still the top moneymakers for publishers. 

Publishing market research shows the economic juggernaut of traditional books. While publishers are experimenting with different media formats — especially audiobooks — they are still investing the bulk of their marketing efforts into physical book sales.

And they should…there’s still big money in old-fashioned publishing!

  • Books sales revenue in 2019 totaled $26 billion
  • Physical books generated 74.7% of the total revenue
  • E-books accounted for only 7.48% of the revenue
  • The remaining part of the revenue was generated by other formats like audiobooks

Book sales statistics

Source: The Association of American Publishers (AAP)

Link to the rest at TonerBuzz

PG notes that TonerBuzz is an ecommerce seller of toner and ink.

Has Amazon Changed Fiction?

From The New Republic:

In 1993, a young Jeff Bezos was contemplating a career change. He wanted to leave his executive job at the high-speed–trading investment firm D.E. Shaw & Co., and while he was mulling his next move, he happened to pick up a copy of The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel about an aging butler who looks back on his life, surveying a landscape of missed opportunity and remorse. The novel’s rueful atmosphere inspired Bezos, or so the story goes, to come up with a “regret minimization framework” for his own decisions. In that spirit, he founded an online bookstore in 1994, books being an ­ideal commodity for an experiment in what is now called e-commerce. His then wife, MacKenzie Scott, was an aspiring author, who had worked as a research assistant for Toni Morrison and would publish her first novel in 2005. In this telling, the world-spanning behemoth corporation that is Amazon is the result first and foremost of literature.

Mark McGurl’s new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, makes the argument not only that books are at the company’s root, but that Amazon itself is a form of literature, an epic narrative of domination that subsumes all of its users as bit characters. It is a force that shapes the creation of all published culture, “offering itself as the new platform of literary life,” McGurl writes. The ways in which the company does this are now so omnipresent as to be subconscious, a fact of culture not worth mentioning, like water to fish. By 2019, Amazon’s digital storefront controlled as much as 72 percent of adult new book sales online and half of all new book sales. Amazon’s Kindle is the most popular e-reader in the world, and, by one estimate, its Kindle Direct Publishing contains over six million e-books. Amazon owns both Audible, the largest audiobook service in the United States, and Goodreads, the pernicious book-review social network that has a reputation for negativity. If that weren’t enough, it also operates 16 of its own imprints for physical books, including a literary-styled imprint, Little A.

Like it or not, we live in the Amazon Era of literature, according to McGurl, just as writers of the late eighteenth century worked in the Age of Johnson; those of the early twentieth century found themselves in the Pound Era; and postwar writers entered the Program Era, which McGurl defined in his previous book as the age of MFA-honed fiction. As well as an economic force, Amazon is an aesthetic one. Literature that is not adapted to its structures, which control the principal ways that books reach readers, will have a difficult time surviving. McGurl dissects this state of affairs in a relatively nonjudgmental way: Rather than arguing that Amazon is destroying literature, or devaluing the artistic act, he attempts to figure out what the house style of the Amazon Era actually is—a style that the author almost perversely enjoys over the course of the book, as part anthropologist and part fan. Unfortunately, that style reads a lot like Fifty Shades of Grey.

.McGurl, a professor of literature at Stanford, focuses less on the innovations of particular works of art than on historical shifts that occurred while art was being made. His 2009 study, The Program Era, took a disinterested approach to fiction, analyzing late–twentieth-century authors as the products of the MFA writing programs they passed through. Among the authors this system produced were Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Rick Moody, and Tama Janowitz. For all their differences in style and approach, McGurl found “the dominant aesthetic orientation of the writing program has been toward literary realism.” Working in cloistered university departments, with teaching as one of the few ways to earn a living, Program Era authors tended to focus on self-expression, the pursuit of a unique personal voice over large-scale political commentary. The reductiveness of McGurl’s arguments, like laws of physics but for culture, doesn’t hamper their utility or their accuracy: He usually seems right.

In Everything and Less, McGurl holds Amazon-style digital platforms and their effects to the same scrutiny as MFA programs. Though there is certainly plenty to watch, read, and listen to outside of platforms like Goodreads and Audible, it’s through them that a huge number of people find the things they want to consume—the process that Silicon Valley calls “discovery.” Discovery happens primarily through feeds of information: We find new authors or journalists to follow from Twitter retweets; new television shows to watch on the Netflix homepage; and new things to buy—whether novels or blenders—through Amazon, where we might be tempted by its suggestions of other related or highly reviewed products. Each platform presents its own kind of filter for what we are most likely to discover, an organizing principle that determines what gets recommended next. Twitter rewards self-contained brevity and incendiary provocation, just as Instagram prioritizes bright colors and stark contrasts, the hallmarks of the digital minimalist aesthetic, and TikTok promotes songs with danceable snippets.

Platforms for literature subject it to the same homogenizing effects. One of McGurl’s most important test cases is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, which serves as a marketplace of literature the way eBay is a market for stuff. Anyone can self-publish on KDP; it bypasses the publishing world’s usual hierarchy of gatekeepers: agents, editors, and imprint publishers. But the ultimate gatekeeper for KDP is Amazon itself, which rewards specific kinds of books and authors, promoting them through its recommendation feeds. Amazon Literature is serial, with authors publishing new material at high volume every few months instead of every few years. It’s repetitive, with the same tropes, plots, and resolutions happening over and over again, satisfying a readership always ready to consume more through a frictionless tablet device. It usually falls into broad genre categories. The epic, à la Game of Thrones, with its civilization-scale narratives, and the romance, like Fifty Shades, with its intimate scope and mandated happy endings, are major Amazon genres.

. . . .

“According to Amazon, all fiction is genre fiction,” McGurl writes. That includes what we think of as literary fiction, which has to pass through the same filters as everything else on Amazon in order to reach its (dwindling) demographic of readers. He relabels a certain category of highbrow contemporary American fiction as its own mini genre: the “beta intellectual romance.” Whereas the “alpha billionaire romance” genre (think Fifty Shades of Grey) tends to feature brusque, dominating men, the beta intellectual romance serves up a version of masculinity shaped by the basics of feminism and awareness of male privilege. The protagonists are sensitive to a fault.

Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to J. for the tip.

The OP reminded PG of how much he hated every college class taught by the English Literature department.

Yet one more in a long list of self-appointed curators of culture, the professor is saying, “Amazon bad” and unnamed people or organizations, likely including traditional publishers, “Good”.

PG speculates that the endowment of Stanford University and, thus, the welfare of the university as a whole, has benefitted far more from the donations by those people who like Amazon and donated its stock to the school than from the cumulative contributions from all English Literature Professors anywhere on earth as a group.

But there PG goes again, thinking that virtue is not its own reward and that it requires money from third parties to keep intellectual university employees from having to work at an Amazon warehouse.

PG would also be interesting in seeing a list of what 21st Century books and authors the Stanford professor finds up to snuff, especially authors who earn their living from their writing and the people who purchase copies of what they have written instead of needing a day job talking to rich 18-year-olds.

As indicated in the OP, Professor McGurl is pitching his new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon. The book is to be released in a few days and is published by Verso, “the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world.”

Here’s what Verso says about itself in Wikipedia:

Verso Books was originally known as New Left Books. The name “Verso” refers to the technical term for the left-hand page in a book (see recto and verso), and is a play on words regarding its political outlook and also reminds of the vice versa – “the other way around”.

Aren’t they cute?

Verso’s website includes a post titled Bestsellers of 2020

The first book listed is titled The End of Policing. When PG checked, its Best Sellers Rank was #170,723 in Kindle Store. The hardcover version was ranked 962,397 in Books.

The second book listed in Verso’s 2020 Bestsellers is Feminism for the 99%. Its Best Sellers Rank: #363,001 in Kindle Store and the paperback’s Best Sellers Rank: #56,308. PG didn’t see a hardcover version of this book.

#3 on Verso’s 2020 Bestsellers list is If They Come in the Morning …: Voices of Resistance (Radical Thinkers). This book has a Best Sellers Rank: #622,343 in Kindle Store and a Best Sellers Rank: #5,331,334 in Books.

Back to Professor McGurl’s literary output, PG discovered that his upcoming Verso release is not his first venture into trying to sell his writing to the public.

The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James was published in June, 2020, by Princeton University Press. This book has a current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,552,418 in Kindle Store.

The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing was published in 2009 by The Harvard University Press and has a current Amazon Best Sellers Rank of #1,064,212 in Kindle Store.

PG expected that these two books must be hot-sellers in Cambridge and Princeton, but a check of the Harvard Bookstore bestsellers list didn’t show any of Professor McGurl’s books. When PG checked the Princeton University store, it was having a big sale on t-shirts, sweatshirts, vests and jackets, blankets and pillows bearing the Princeton logo. PG eventually Princeton’s books section, but a search for Professor McGurl’s name yielded no products for sale. The Princeton store did offer a cool bottle-stopper, however.

Even The Stanford Bookstore didn’t appear to offer any of Professor McGurl’s books although you can buy a cool Stanford Wrist Shimmer Pom there.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

George Bernard Shaw

Forget Disney. Author Soman Chainani thinks of fairy tales as ‘survival guides to life’

From c/net:

Author Soman Chainani has spent 10 years working on his children’s book series The School for Good and Evil. He finished the sixth, and last, book in the series, One True King, in March 2020, and says he was ready to take the rest of the year to relax and head out on new adventures. But the day after he turned in the manuscript, COVID-19 happened and so he spent most of 2020 pretty much indoors.

What did he do during lockdown? He wrote a new book, called Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales, which has just been released.

Just like The School for Good and Evil, which aimed to upend the fairy tale genre, Beasts and Beauty reinvents 12 classic stories, including Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Peter Pan. There’s a common thread in his approach: Chainani says he thinks of fairy tales as “survival guides to life” and he wants kids to consider the heroes and villains in a completely different way, non-Disney way.

. . . .

“I grew up with Disney fairy tales almost exclusively in our house … and so my entire viewpoint of good and evil is shaped by Disney, and I would honestly say I think most people in my generation and above have their morality shaped by Disney, which is why I’m not surprised that our politics is so polarized,” Chainani explains in an interview for CNET’s I’m So Obsessed podcast.

“Because when you have such a clear good guy and evil guy in all our storytelling … it means that one side has to live and one side has to die, and you’re not going to make any accommodations for either.”

. . . .

As a college student at Harvard University, Chainani reread the original classic fairy tales and learned how much “room for ambiguity and good and grayness and in-the-spectrum-between-good-and-evil there is.” That thinking led to The School for Good and Evil in 2013, which tells the story of 12-year-old friends Sophie and Agatha who go to a magical school where children are trained to become fairy-tale heroes or villains (Evers and Nevers).

Chainani says he wanted to upend “this idea that we brand the evil kids ‘the bad kids’ without understanding who they are and what they’re about and understanding that we all have a different way of approaching life.”

“Once you start experimenting, and giving people the chance to mess with their identity and experience life from the opposite perspective, all hell’s gonna break loose,” he says with a laugh. “But in a way, that’s going to ultimately lead to a more positive reconstruction of the world.”

. . . .

The series has sold more than 2.5 million copies and Netflix is adapting The School for Good and Evil into an original movie set for release in 2022. It’s being directed by Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids and Spy) and stars Charlize Theron, Kerry Washington, Michelle Yeoh and Laurence Fishburne. “It’s going to be a big huge fairy-tale, action spectacular,” Chainani told his fans.

With Beast and Beauty, Chainani decided to “blow up the fairy tales and retell them as if I was the Brothers Grimm in the 1700s and I could see what the world would look like now.” That’s why Snow White is the only black girl in an all-white kingdom and Red Riding Hood is about how the most beautiful girl in town is marked for sacrifice every spring to a pack of wolves/boys in what he describes as the “ultimate #MeToo experience.”

Link to the rest at c/net

Does Listening to a Book Have the Same Brain Benefits as Reading?

From Well+Good:

While there aren’t exactly a wealth of scientific studies endorsing that binging Real Housewives is good for your brain (clinical trials, get at me), reading is one hobby that has been well-documented to supporting cognitive health. It’s up there with doing crosswords and playing a musical instrument in terms of habits brain health experts always recommend people to do keep their mind sharp.

Sometimes, there is nothing better than curling up in your favorite chair with a paperback. But if you want to multitask and read at the same time, audiobooks can be handier. You can’t exactly drive or deep clean the bathroom with a book in your hands. But as audiobooks have become increasingly more popular, it does beg the question of whether or not you’re really getting the same benefits as traditional reading. Sure, you’ll be able to chime in at book club, but does listening to a book require the same brain power? When it comes to the reading versus listening debate, neuroscientist and Biohack Your Brain author Kristen Willeumier, PhD. has some thoughts.

The brain benefits reading and listening have in common

Most people know that reading is good for brain health, but a lot of people don’t know why. “Reading is a cognitively engaging task that requires higher-level cognitive processing integrating written information and language comprehension,” Dr. Willeumier says. She explains that reading—and then processing what you’re reading—activates different parts of the brain. She says this includes the frontal lobes (involved in cognitive processing, attention, reasoning, reading fluency, and language comprehension), temporal lobes (memory), parietal lobes (language processing), occipital lobes (visually processing the words on the page), and cerebellum (motor control related to visual processing—aka moving your pupils across the words).

“A consistent reading practice strengthens your ability to communicate and will improve your vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills while enhancing brain network connectivity. Reading has been shown to promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that lead to greater longevity,” Dr. Willeumier adds. For example, researchers at Yale School of Public Health found that book reading had a 20 percent reduction in mortality in readers versus non-readers.

While the study focused only on physical books and didn’t include audiobooks, here’s what Dr. Willeumier says reading versus listening have in common when it comes to brain function: In both situations, you are processing information associated with story comprehension. Whether you’re reading or listening, your brain is working to connect the pieces of the puzzle, making sense of the plot and attempting to predict what will happen next. But there are some differences in terms of how this information is processed.

Reading versus listening: how the brain benefits differ

“The brain is differentially activated when processing speech versus print,” Dr. Willeumier says. She explains that understanding what you’re reading activates the left brain (in areas associated with language processing), while understanding what you’re listening to activates both (in order to process speech and acoustics).

. . . .

She also says that listening to an audiobook may lead to developing greater empathy because you’re hearing the emotion in the narrator’s voice, not just reading it on the page. “Listening to an emotionally-driven storyteller engages emotional circuits in the brain and can heighten the intensity and imagery of the episodes, leading to deeper processing of the narrative and greater enjoyment of the material than experienced by reading a book,” she says.

Link to the rest at Well+Good

The curious incident of Sherlock Holmes’s real-life secretary

From The Economist:

On a brisk spring morning in March 1975, Chris Bazlinton, a tall, fair-haired, bespectacled 27-year-old, arrived at Baker Street station in central London. He’d travelled from his home in Essex in the hope of getting a job at Abbey National, a British building society. The interview went well: he was offered the public-relations role on the spot. “Oh, one more little thing,” the general manager said. “You will also have to act as secretary to Sherlock Holmes, answering the mail that comes in for him.” He paused, with a slight smile: “How do you feel about that?”

Bazlinton thought his new boss might be joking, but grinned back. “I’d be happy to,” he said.

As Bazlinton would soon discover, the peculiar position of Sherlock Holmes’s secretary had been created more than four decades earlier, in 1932, when Abbey opened its grand, white-marbled headquarters on Baker Street. The art-deco building was so large that it had been assigned ten street numbers, from 219 to 229. Overnight, one of the most famous literary addresses in history – 221b Baker Street, home of Holmes and his partner, John H. Watson – became a real place for the first time.

Ever since Sherlock Holmes made his debut in 1887 in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”, fans had been writing to him from all over the world, believing that the fictional detective was an actual person. At that time Baker Street didn’t go beyond number 85, so the mail went undelivered. Now Abbey was inundated with letters. Rather than ask the post office to stop bringing the correspondence, the company decided it wouldn’t be a bad bit of pr to be aligned with the brilliant sleuth.

Bazlinton was the seventh secretary to Holmes, serving until 1982. Over the course of seven years, Bazlinton estimates that he received nearly 6,000 pieces of mail and replied to each one. I tracked him down out of sheer curiosity: who would be a real-life secretary to a fictional detective?

To the many who wrote simply to praise the character’s remarkable powers of deduction, Bazlinton sent a standardised thank you, though he was careful to dispatch different versions when a whole class of children wrote to him. To people requesting photos of their idol he’d reply: “We couldn’t possibly send a picture of Sherlock Holmes, because that might cause him problems if he were recognised in the street. As a detective, he obviously has to remain anonymous.”

The volume of letters could be overwhelming, Bazlinton says, but he crafted a more tailored reply to the more “interesting” ones, punching them out on his manual Adler typewriter. When I asked him why he was such an assiduous correspondent on behalf of an imaginary person, he looked incredulous, almost like Holmes amazed that his dear Watson had yet again failed to detect the elementary: “Somebody had to answer.”

. . . .

In 1893 Holmes and his arch-nemesis Moriarty fell off a cliff and perished in “The Adventures of the Final Problem”. (“I must save my mind for better things,” Conan Doyle opined to his mother.) Unlike most of us, however, the detective rose from the dead eight years later when, badgered by black-armband-wearing fans and the lure of lucrative publishing contracts, Conan Doyle resurrected his creation.

Holmes mania has barely waned in the ensuing century and a quarter. Around the world, enthusiasts pore over the fictional detective’s cases as if they really happened, playing the Great Game “as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s”, crime writer Dorothy Sayers once observed.

Sherlock Holmes has been adapted for television and film more times than any other literary protagonist, leaving Emma in the Highbury dust. In the bbc’s “Sherlock”, Benedict Cumberbatch trades a pipe for a nicotine patch and investigates terrorism in London rather than murder on the moors. Across reams of fan-fiction, the genius gumshoe has occupied different galaxies and space-time continuums. He’s switched genders and gender-identities. He’s sung and danced in a psychedelic Russian musical and been a dog, a mouse, a gnome and a deerstalker-clad cucumber (the latter in the Christian-themed animated kids show, “VeggieTales”). He’s also picked up family members, as in last summer’s Netflix film “Enola Holmes”, itself based on a series of young-adult novels that tell the tale of Sherlock’s little sister who joins the family business and strikes a blow against the patriarchy. A sequel is in the works.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Seeking vs. Suffering: The Secret of Passive Protagonists

From Writer Unboxed:

I’ll admit it. I fell for the title of Kelsey Allagood’s WU post on September 18th: “Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy”. Upon reading the title my blood pressure rose, not because of the heated word “patriarchy” but because of the chilly suggestion that “active” protagonists are inherently bad and therefore “passive” protagonists are fundamentally good, and maybe even a necessary political tool for activist fiction writers.

Of course, Kelsey was being slyly provocative. She did not strictly mean that writers should see passive protagonists as a weapon of change. Hey kids, here’s a great way to tear down patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, agism, homophobia, racism, capitalism, gentrification and more…let’s be more passive! There’s an idea, eh?

No, Kelsey was mostly speaking of “active” and “passive” in the technical sense in which we apply those words to protagonists in discussing fiction craft. The distinction is important and Kelsey’s point was a good one: not all protagonists are, or need to be, “active” in the sense of being imbued with agency and embarking on a planned course of action. Kelsey said, “I say let’s talk those of us who aren’t always in the driver’s seat.” Today I’m taking her up on that.

Not every protagonist is Odysseus. It is entirely possible that a main character can begin a story in a state of suspension. It’s a human condition to be oppressed, wandering, lost, stuck or even imprisoned. People don’t always make things happen; things happen to them. Naturally, there is no story without a response to an adverse situation. But does that mean a fist fight? Must a protagonist formulate a goal, or—ask me—engage in the more useful business of task, plan, scheme or gamble? Isn’t it enough for a main character to observe, experience, chafe, resist? Can’t a protagonist give voice to the powerless? Can’t a character just yearn?

More: Who says that women protagonists must be kick-ass, anyway? Must plot always drive toward something? Is a story climax always needed? (Whoa, so masculo-sexual!) Can’t a story be built of retreat, running, seeking refuge, healing? Is courage necessarily violent? Isn’t it equally dramatic to endure? Where is the line between passive as strong, admirable and uplifting and passive as weak, degrading and pathetic? There is a line. It has nothing to do with a character’s circumstances and everything to do with a character’s spirit.

This is where passive dissociates itself from the common, pejorative, unhelpful associations of the word. For fiction writers, a passive protagonist doesn’t have a commanding position in the story world but does have an inner light that says that this character is alive, aware, unbroken, strong inside and seeing. A passive protagonist might be helpless but is not hopeless. A passive protagonist may not be marching toward battle but nevertheless is on a journey to someplace better.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

An Erotica Pioneer Goes From Hero to Villain for Dozens of Authors

From The New York Times:

Anne Wills was a mother of four who doted on her children, was an active volunteer with a youth swim team, loved animals and was known to those around her as a generous, nurturing, motherly figure in her small town in rural Virginia.

When that life felt too tame for her, she became Bethany Burke, a bawdy, kink-loving erotica author who also made low-budget spanking films. She wrote them and occasionally even directed them.

She was an early online erotica entrepreneur with her subscription spanking site, Bethany’s Woodshed, and a hero and mentor to dozens of authors, most of them women, whom she published for the first time through Blushing Books, the company that grew out of her original site. Some of those authors started earning tens of thousands of dollars a year from what they had thought of as a secret hobby, not a profession.

Now, to many of those same writers, she is a villain.

“She has you, she owns you,” said Barbara Carey LaPointe, a retired social worker in Camden, N.Y., who writes romance under the pen name Stevie MacFarlane and who, like dozens of other authors, is fighting Ms. Wills to reclaim the rights to the stories she created.

“These are the only things I’ll be able to leave to my grandchildren,” Ms. LaPointe said.

In interviews with The New York Times, a dozen Blushing authors and seven former employees described a haphazardly run business that frequently failed to pay authors on time, and threatened them with lower royalties and defamation lawsuits if they defected. Some writers who spoke to The Times discovered they were not being paid for books that Blushing was selling through certain online vendors or in audio format. Others were locked into contracts that gave Blushing “permanent and exclusive” rights to their books and pen names, which publishing experts called onerous and outside of industry standards.

When asked by authors about the missing payments, Ms. Wills, 63, the chief executive, often called it an oversight or a glitch in the system. But several former employees said that delayed payments to authors were a result of Blushing’s routine mismanagement of finances.

. . . .

In December 2020, the Romance Writers of America, a trade group, announced that, following an ethics investigation, it had suspended the publisher’s membership for three years and barred Blushing from attending its conferences. The Authors Guild, an advocacy group, is representing 30 writers seeking to reclaim rights to their work from Blushing. So far, one of those authors has stopped Blushing from selling her books after filing copyright-infringement notices with retailers, showing that Blushing did not hold contracts for them. Umair Kazi, director of policy and advocacy at the Authors Guild, said that some of Blushing’s contract provisions and its treatment of some authors go against industry standards and raise “many red flags.”

In a statement to The Times, Ms. Wills declined to address specific allegations from authors, and said that her company’s policy was not to speak publicly about any “author’s contractual obligation with Blushing.” She also noted that Blushing had paid “millions of dollars in royalties just in the past five years.”

Under pressure from authors, Blushing has offered more transparency, and says that it is now providing monthly royalty payments, and that since the first quarter of 2020, it has used an automated royalty tracking system to generate payments.

A lawyer for Ms. Wills said that she “believes she has fulfilled her contractual duties to her authors and continues to do so” and that “Blushing wishes to move on from this small group of past authors and disgruntled past employees and put its energy into focusing on the talented and passionate authors they have the privilege to represent.”

. . . .

On top of major companies like Harlequin, Avon and Berkley, which are owned by large multinational corporations, a constellation of smaller, independent romance publishers sometimes operate in a gray area between corporate publishers and vanity presses, which charge authors to publish their work. The independent presses tend to offer writers small advances of four to five figures but a higher cut of royalties, a share of profits. Often, they attract writers, mostly women, who have little professional publishing experience and aren’t represented by lawyers or agents who can help them evaluate a contract.

“Writers who really want to get published are so easy to take advantage of, and there are more and more people out there to take advantage of,” said Mary Rasenberger, chief executive of the Authors Guild.

While every creative field has horror stories about artists who are underpaid and exploited, the dynamics of the romance industry can be especially difficult to navigate. Despite the ascendance of erotica, there’s a lingering stigma attached to the genre, which is written largely by and for women, and is still sometimes dismissed as shameful or unserious. Many romance authors publish under pen names and keep their professional and personal identities separate, and some write in secret for fear of being judged for writing about sex, and more particularly about women enjoying sex.

Ms. LaPointe, 66, became disillusioned with Blushing after she discovered it had added clauses to her contracts without telling her. The additions included claiming rights to foreign editions, audiobooks, and film and television adaptations, according to contracts shared with The Times. Her royalty payments were erratic — she said she sometimes made $3,000 in a quarter, and other times Blushing would claim she owed the company money for advances that it hadn’t made back in sales. She recently started self-publishing and is making far more on her own, but Blushing still has rights to 31 of her books.

She understands now how many questions she should have asked when she began publishing with Blushing in 2012.

“At the time you’re so thankful that a publisher is going to take your book,” she said. “Looking back, you realize how incredibly naïve you were,” she said.

. . . .

As she was building her erotica empire, Ms. Wills ran into legal trouble.

Under her married name from her first marriage, Anne Briggs, Ms. Wills was charged with embezzlement in Charlottesville, according to court records. In 2000, she pleaded guilty to embezzling funds in 1998 from a cafe where she worked as a bookkeeper and to credit card fraud in 1997. Around the same time, she was accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars from a youth swim team, according to reports in The Daily Progress, a Charlottesville paper, but she was never prosecuted. (A lawyer for Ms. Wills said that “the allegations regarding criminal charges are false.”)

In her other life as Bethany, she had grand ambitions for her publishing business, and recruited a large stable of authors. “She would wine and dine you,” said Victoria Rouch, a former editor in chief for Blushing, who writes under the name Ava Sinclair. “She always had this image of being extremely wealthy.”

She added: “She would get new writers and they would be the flavor of the month. She would treat them like queens.”

Ms. Wills bought many books outright as “work for hire,” meaning Blushing bought them outright and no royalties would be owed. For others, she offered a seven-year term to license the work, but in some contracts, she claimed permanent and exclusive rights, meaning Blushing could sell the books forever. To attract new writers, Blushing promised some a large cut of royalties — 50 percent, or 60 percent if authors agreed to publish exclusively with Blushing — far more than the typical 25 percent that most authors make for e-books with mainstream publishers. Those royalties were to be paid quarterly, but Blushing’s most successful authors were offered monthly payments.

. . . .

Some former employees said that they found her endearingly scatterbrained, and that they tried to create automated systems to keep track of royalties and to try to make sure authors were paid on time. Former employees said that they had asked Ms. Wills to create an escrow account for author earnings to protect them until royalties were paid, but she declined. An informal policy was to make sure the best-selling authors, and the ones who frequently complained — called “the yappers” by employees —- were paid first, while others had to wait, according to former employees.

As an avalanche of self-published erotica arrived after “Fifty Shades of Grey” came out in 2011, the dark, edgy category Blushing once thrived in was flooded. Ms. Wills looked for ways to stay visible in a cutthroat online marketplace.

. . . .

One of her workarounds was risky. Several former employees said that Ms. Wills had set up multiple Kindle publishing accounts on Amazon, around 10 at one point, a violation of Amazon’s one-account-per-publisher policy. Ms. Wills told employees that books performed better with Amazon’s algorithm when they came from accounts with fewer new releases. She also told them not to talk about the accounts — if Amazon learned of it, Blushing’s account could potentially be shut down, taking authors’ sales and careers with it.

But some former employees grew suspicious when they saw accounts opened in authors’ names, or when Ms. Wills used employee names, addresses and tax IDs to open an account, including Alta Hensley, a former editor in chief who quit after Ms. Wills tried to open an account in Nevada under her tax ID and address without Ms. Hensley’s permission. Ms. Hensley refused to sign the paperwork and later quit. Ms. Wills threatened to sue her if she said anything negative about the company, she said.

. . . .

At first, Wendy Weston, a clinical social worker who lives in Texas and writes as Alyssa Bailey, was ecstatic to see her books in print. “She published me first and I will always be thankful that she took a chance on me,” she said of Ms. Wills.

But now she fears she has signed away rights to her books forever. The company holds permanent and exclusive rights to 22 of her titles, including her historical romance series, “Lords and Little Ladies,” and her contemporary Western spanking romances. In 2019, her royalties fell to half what they once were. Once, when she received no royalties for eight months, she asked Ms. Wills why she hadn’t been paid.

“She said, ‘Oh we forgot to pay you,’” Ms. Weston said.

Some authors signed contracts that gave Blushing permanent rights to their pen names and series names, making it all but impossible for them to leave without sacrificing their careers and audience.

Ms. Wills also added a clause giving the company “permanent and exclusive rights” to titles, often without informing authors of the change, and instructed an employee to revert to the previous term of seven years only if authors noticed and asked for it, emails reviewed by The Times showed. “Based on what I’ve seen, some of these clauses read as predatory and not standard,” said the literary agent Kimberly Brower, who reviewed language in Blushing’s contracts at The Times’s request. “Some of these publishers count on the fact that authors do not have agents or cannot afford a lawyer.”

. . . .

Anya Summers, whose real name is Margaret Huth, is a former music teacher who lives in St. Louis and now writes romance full time. She started publishing her “Dungeon Fantasy Club” series, about a secret B.D.S.M. sex club, with Blushing in 2016. Her relationship with the company soured last year, when she ended her exclusive agreement with it and began self-publishing books on the side. Ms. Huth was alarmed when her royalty payments from Blushing subsequently plummeted, even though many of her latest Blushing books were ranking higher on Amazon than they had in the previous quarter, suggesting sales remained strong. Royalty statements from Blushing said one of her books had not sold a single copy, when Amazon reviews showed verified purchases.

. . . .

When she emailed Ms. Wills last October to ask why her royalties fell, Ms. Wills replied that her Blushing sales fell because she was self-publishing, and said that unless Ms. Huth agreed to publish exclusively with Blushing, her payments would shrink even more, according to an email reviewed by The Times. Ms. Huth wouldn’t agree to the terms, and subsequently, she said her payments fell by nearly 70 percent, amounting to thousands of dollars a month.

Ms. Huth recently learned that in 2017, the publisher registered a limited liability corporation under her pen name, Anya Summers, and that it also opened a Kindle publishing account in her name without her knowledge or permission.

. . . .

In a way, Blushing’s vast and growing catalog of erotica was itself something of an illusion, a fantasy in more ways than one. Blushing often treated its writers and their work as interchangeable, another kinky story to feed the bottomless appetite of Amazon’s algorithm.

To keep pumping out new releases, Ms. Wills padded inventory by taking older books and repacking them with new covers, sometimes under a different title and pen name, according to several former employees. One former Blushing author said Ms. Wills often rehashed older books as new titles and asked her to lightly rewrite some. “She had thousands of books by all kinds of authors that she claims she just owns and she can put other people’s names on,” the author, who writes as RJ Gray, said.

While Blushing can legally recycle books it bought as work for hire, the practice can trick readers into buying the same story twice.

That’s what happened to some fans of JoAnn Kinder, who started writing for Ms. Wills in 2001 and published more than 200 books with Blushing. When she died suddenly in June 2018, at age 67, many of her books did not have formal contracts.

She was in the process of finalizing agreements that specified that in the event of her passing, her royalties would go to her surviving family, including her husband, her two children and her grandchildren, according to her daughter, Christina Boes.

Ms. Wills told Ms. Kinder’s family that her books hadn’t been making much money and promised to send them a share of royalties, Ms. Boes said. “To say that she wasn’t making any money on her books is a complete falsehood,” said Ms. Boes, a home health nurse in Colorado, who added that her mother used to make $3,000 to $5,000 in royalties every quarter, though payments often arrived late.

Two former employees confirmed that Ms. Kinder’s books, which were written under 10 pen names, including Joannie Kay, still sold steadily.

Nearly two years after Ms. Kinder’s death, the company sent a contract to her husband, promising the family 10 percent of profits for her titles and claiming the right to revise and republish her work under new titles and pseudonyms. On the advice of a lawyer, Mr. Kinder signed the contract, a decision the family now regrets.

Ms. Boes said the family has not received royalties for her mother’s works, apart from $200 that Blushing sent for a chapter she submitted right before she died. The family and Blushing dispute the status of royalty payments. Beyond that, Ms. Boes is upset that her mother’s work is being revised and released, and that her mother would have been appalled by readers feeling deceived.

“They’re still selling all of these books and rewriting them,” Ms. Boes said.

RJ Gray said that in 2019, after Ms. Kinder’s death, Ms. Wills had asked her to add more explicit scenes to Ms. Kinder’s books, something Ms. Kinder had opposed, according to her family.

“She told me that she had access to Joanie’s material and she wanted me to rewrite it,” Ms. Gray said. “Joanie wrote clean, and she wanted to spice up her work and resell it.”

Ms. Gray said no, but Blushing pressed ahead with plans to keep Ms. Kinder’s books coming out posthumously.

. . . .

For a while, Ms. Wills was able to keep authors from speaking about the company through nondisclosure agreements in their contracts. But in 2019, a group of writers rebelled. The author organizing the uprising was Addison Cain, one of Blushing’s top sellers. Ms. Cain had gotten into a copyright dispute with another author after Ms. Cain claimed that her books had been plagiarized, and then discovered that Blushing had never copyrighted her books, a standard service that many publishers provide and that Blushing’s contracts said they would cover. (The accused author filed a lawsuit against Ms. Cain and Blushing, and received a judgment against Blushing, but the suit against Ms. Cain was dismissed after the plaintiff liquidated her company and missed court deadlines.)

Ms. Cain told some other authors, who learned that their books, too, had never been copyrighted. Some found their books on piracy sites but Blushing said it couldn’t do anything and discouraged authors from seeking to have them removed.

“Blushing was risking the livelihood of all of their authors,” Ms. Cain said.

The group, seven authors, hired a lawyer to send a demand letter to Blushing for breach of contract and reached a settlement with Blushing to get their rights reverted, but some had to file copyright-infringement notices with retailers to get Blushing to take their books down.

The departure of many of Blushing’s best-selling authors was disastrous for Ms. Wills, who faced mounting legal bills and shrinking profits, and had just spent $135,000 on an office building in Farmville, which was later sold at a $20,000 loss. She worried that other authors might defect, and she registered trademarks for successful series that she thought she might lose in her company’s name, not the author’s, according to trademark filings.

The conflict escalated in February 2020, when some routine financial paperwork caused everything to unravel.

That month, the seven authors who got their rights back received tax documents from Blushing. One of them, Zoe Blake, said she believed the form incorrectly labeled her earnings. In seeking to have it corrected, she was sent email correspondence that Blushing said was from an accountant, explaining no error had occurred. In fact, the email had been altered by Ms. Wills, according to email records and interviews.

Ms. Wills acknowledged in a phone call that she had changed the accountant’s email, but claimed she had only done so to make his meaning more clear, according to Ms. Lamon, who was on the call with two other employees. (In a statement to the Times, Ms. Wills said she had “never been contacted once by the I.R.S. informing us of any issues with tax documents.”)

Blushing’s production manager, accounts manager and editor in chief all promptly resigned. Before they left, the production manager paid herself and other employees their salaries and paid out royalties, including some that had been delayed, and she listed these payments in her resignation letter.

The next day, Ms. Wills filed a police report claiming that her production manager had embezzled from the company. A few weeks later, the former employee was arrested in her home in front of her husband, the deputy chief of police, and her children, and taken before the magistrate. A group of Blushing authors raised money for her legal fees, and Ms. Wills’s estranged husband and one of her children also offered to help.

Ms. Wills never provided any forensic accounting evidence of embezzlement, a lawyer representing the former employee said, and the charge, which was filed in the wrong jurisdiction, was later expunged, according to the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Ms. Wills filed a new complaint against the former employee, but no charges have been filed. (The woman spoke to The Times about the events that led to her arrest on the condition that her name not be printed.)

Link to the rest at The New York Times

This is a longer than usual excerpt than PG usually posts, but the original NYT article is longer still.

Here are a few bullet-point lessons authors can take from the OP:

  1. Read your contracts.
  2. Read every contract, even if it is supposed to be the same as an earlier contract. You can use MS Word Document Compare to assist in this process and help make sure you didn’t miss something small but important.
  3. You don’t have to accept the wording of a proposed publishing agreement. It’s an offer sent to you to enter into a binding contract. You can modify the wording of the agreement, sign it and send it back to the publisher. In legal lingo, this is a counter-offer. If the publisher signs the modified publishing agreement, that’s the binding agreement, not the first version they sent to you.
  4. In contract negotiations, PG is a proponent of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, and PG begins negotiations in a friendly and cooperative manner. (Academic negotiations studies indicate this is the best way to reach an acceptable agreement, so PG has some scientific justification for his normal instincts in contract negotiations.)
  5. PG also applies his “do unto others” standard to the counter-party as well. If counsel for the publisher is friendly and cooperative, that’s the way PG would respond. If counsel is aggressive or a jerk, PG could move into that negotiation mode even if that wasn’t his first preference.
  6. As a general proposition, if the counter-party appears to be shady and devious, PG’s advice to a client would be not to do business with that sort of person or organization because the likelihood of a bad outcome is very high.
  7. If, as the OP implies might have been the case, these authors were pretty desperate to be published and an author, despite PG’s warnings, asked PG to move forward with contract assistance, PG would have no problem creating a modified version of the original unfair contract for the author to send back to a publisher like Blushing with modifications fixing the original unfair provisions. If PG regarded the original contract wording as devious, his response might well be devious, mirroring the publisher’s contract proposal.
  8. As sloppy an operation as the OP indicates Blushing was, PG would be surprised if anyone in the organization read a signed publishing agreement received from an author.

However, even with a reworded publishing agreement, the author would still not be in a very good position to do much with an organization like the one depicted in the NYT article.

Under a typical traditional publishing agreement, the publisher receives all the information concerning a book’s sales. As stated in the OP, at least some of Blushing authors claim the publisher misrepresented the sales numbers and money received from the sales of at least some of its books to the detriment of the authors. If the publisher was operated in the manner implied in the OP, PG would expect a high likelihood that its financial books and accounting are pretty much a black hole.

The first rule of creating a successful agreement is to make it with an individual or entity that will do what he/she/it promises to do competently. No amount of genius legal drafting will avoid problems if the other side of an agreement isn’t inclined to or capable of carrying out its obligations.

Given the high profile of The New York Times, PG would be surprised if a variety of taxing authorities don’t start audits of Blushing’s filings and financial records.

Amazon and other sellers of books published by Blushing may respond to the information in the article in a variety of different ways.

That said, all that PG knows about Blushing and Ms. Wills is what he read in the NYT article. He has not heard Blushing’s side of the story, which he expects would be much different than that published in the Times.

For the record, nothing included in PG’s commentary represents a legal opinion. You don’t obtain a legal opinion by reading a blog post written by an attorney. You obtain a legal opinion by hiring a competent lawyer who would do much more research than read a New York Times article. Facts not mentioned in the NYT article may have a substantial legal impact that would make some or all of the article or PG’s reflections based on the report incorrect.

PG doesn’t have any desire to get involved in this Blushing matter as an attorney. He’s not licensed to practice in Virginia and, while he spent a lot of time in court during a previous life, he has no desire or ability to enter any courtroom now or in the future unless he’s there as a spectator to watch other attorneys do all the work.

Think Like a Horror Writer to Create Better Villains

From SWFA:

You write speculative fiction for the same reason you’ve read or watched it your entire life. There’s something inside of you that craves tales of relatable characters overcoming adversity. It’s your inner hero, and it manifests on that illuminated screen when you sit alone, clicking away on the keyboard. That something becomes the characters that you put your heart and soul into, hoping to all things sacred that your readers will love them–because after all, they’re a part of you.

But what about the bad guy? Every element in good storytelling exists for one of two reasons: it either builds tension (conflict) or releases it (resolution). Genre fiction often utilizes an antagonist to build its tension. Since horror thrives on developing this character, authors of other speculative genres can learn a lot from horror writers about creating good villains. There are many ways to craft a good bad guy, but this horror author has found that they essentially boil down to three “R”s.

1) MAKE YOUR ANTAGONIST REAL.

Whether your bad guy is a malevolent mastermind from another realm, a big, dumb troll, or a serial killer, your task as a writer is to make me believe he is real within the world you’ve created. After all, how could something phony pose any real threat? If it’s sentient, consider adding a humanistic quality: Jealousy. Genuine anger. A moment of empathy. Maybe even a brief second-guessing of the morality of his actions. Anything with which your audience can relate, and therefore, believe. Unless this character is invisible, be diligent in your physical description of him. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many authors over-describe their heroes, yet under-describe their bad guys. Think of your story in terms of visual-media, and give your antagonist some close-ups. Tell me about his rancid breath as he leans in to place cold, steel chains on your heroine’s wrists. How do the warm drops of sweat feel as they roll off his bald head to land on her face? Are the threads that stick out from the bottom of his robe frizzed? You don’t have to describe every crack in his pinky-nail, but a few cleverly placed details will give him flesh.

2) MAKE YOUR ANTAGONIST REALLY MENACING.

Not just menacing to the world at large, either. This malevolent force should be particularly menacing to your hero or heroine. A manifestation of their fears and past failures. His very existence should threaten something dear, even if it’s only their sanity. Reveal just how terrible he is in increments, as the story unfolds, through acts of treachery. Deviate from your outline, and use him to kill a character you never intended to kill (if it hurts you, it will hurt your readers.) Progressively change the tone of your writing to reflect your hero’s growing distress with each revelation. This will cause the audience to sympathize with them, putting them in your hero’s shoes, and increasing the satisfaction of their ultimate triumph (or in the case of many horror stories, the impact of their failure).

Link to the rest at SWFA

Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp Go Down in Major Outage

From The Wall Street Journal:

Facebook Inc.’s platforms including WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook were down Monday, with users receiving error messages when trying to access the sites.

“We’re aware that some people are having trouble accessing our apps and products,” Facebook wrote in a message posted on rival Twitter. “We’re working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”

The outage comes a day after the whistleblower who provided documents that formed the foundation of The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series went public. Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, said she acted to help prompt change at the social-media giant.

Facebook shares dropped more than 5% on Monday amid a broad-market selloff.

Users began reporting problems late Monday morning, according to Downdetector, a site that monitors website outages. A spokesperson at Downdetector’s parent company, Ookla, said the outage to Facebook and its other companies was “widespread and global in scale.”

Facebook appeared to have made a change Monday morning to its network routing information, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at the network monitoring firm Kentik.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The sites appeared to still be down at about Noon US Pacific time when PG posted this item.

Success Without Self-Promotion

From Writer Unboxed:

Self-promotion isn’t the most famous naughty s-word, but it can still feel like a bad word to today’s authors. I hate self-promotion, you might say. I’m so sick of talking about myself on social media.With more and more options to reach readers directly comes an expectation that authors will do more and more to reach those readers themselves, often without publisher assistance.

So! How do you sell books without a single self-promotional tweet, post, or video?

Simple. In most cases, you actually shouldn’t be promoting yourself. If the goal is to sell books — or at least make people you don’t know personally curious enough about your book(s) to take action — you are not the product. “Buy my book!” doesn’t work if the reader doesn’t know you or know anything about the book in question.

Instead of self-promotion, think of the path to getting your book in front of readers on social media as a railroad track, with two parallel rails: be yourself, and take yourself out of the equation.

Be yourself. There are lots of names for this, and most of them sound like awful corporate-speak: curation! Branding! But let go of the labels. Being yourself on social media doesn’t mean sharing every last little thing. You’re not going to see Instagram posts from me about taking my car to the mechanic last Tuesday or the ancient celery I just found in the back of my produce drawer. But it means posting or talking about the things that interest you, especially where those things overlap with the books you write. If you’re spending some of your time on social media connecting with people who enjoy reading the books you like to read, chances are that when you have a book of your own to talk about, they’ll enjoy hearing about that too.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Dave and Goliath: maverick writer Eggers makes a stand against Amazon

From The Guardian:

The plight of the high street bookshop, struggling against the power of the online giants, is a common complaint either side of the Atlantic. But not often do the prominent players, the authors and publishers, put their words into action and take a stand against the tide.

This month, Dave Eggers, the award-winning campaigning author, is to risk American sales of his new novel, The Every, by limiting access to the hardback copies. Only small bookstores will stock it.

It is a typical move for Eggers, who has long pushed back against the conventions of the industry, setting up his own non-profit publishing house, McSweeney’s, in 1998, two years before his breakout bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But it is also something that fits neatly with the subject of his new book. A sequel to his 2013 hit, The Circle, it is a dystopian satire, featuring a company that looks much like Amazon.

For the US release of the book, on Tuesday, Eggers will allow hardcover editions to go on sale only in small bookstores. Weeks later, Vintage, a division of Random House, will publish an e-book and a paperback version. Even then, customers won’t be able to buy the hardcover on Amazon.

Eggers’s maverick move has been met with great gratitude by America’s independent bookstore owners, who are struggling with the huge post-Covid shift to online services.

“It’s made us feel like the author and the publishing industry really care about the smaller stores,” said Laura Scott Schaefer, owner of Scattered Books in Chappaqua, New York. “It’s been hard to compete with the bigger retailers. Any small advantage we can get in any kind of space is great.”

Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami and creator of the Miami book fair international, goes further. He believes Eggers is recognising “the important role independent booksellers play in the ecology of our literary culture”. Kaplan sees Eggers’s innovation as support for stores more than an attack on Amazon, which, after all, has had a negative impact on a wide range of other small businesses. The larger question for Kaplan is what would be lost if independent bookshops disappeared.

“You’d be losing a diversity of voices when you lose a diversity of sellers. The people who sell literature in a community help people to discover voices that might not otherwise be introduced,” he said.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to D for the tip.

PG just checked on Amazon (US) and the book is available for pre-order in Kindle, paperback and audiobook formats. It’s scheduled to release on November 16. As usual, no preview was available from Randy Penguin.

PG will let those with more information about sales of speculative fiction in hardback decide whether this heavily-promoted virtue-signalling will save any bookstores or not.

If having a soul

If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.

James Herriot

Animals have dwindled in novels since 1835. Is fiction undergoing its own extinction event?

From The Guardian:

A recent study in People and Nature claims that animals are being written out of novels at a similar rate to their extinction in the real world. The German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research searched the entire online Project Gutenberg archive of 60,000 texts, written between 1705 and 1969. They found that since 1835, animal usage in fiction – other than domesticated beasts such as horses and dogs or “threat” animals such as bears or lions – has dwindled to a fraction of its former propensity. Professor Christian Wirth, the study’s senior author, argues that this has implications for our response to the climate crisis: “We can only halt the loss of biodiversity by a radical change in awareness.”I think he’s right, but not because animals have been written out of novels. They’ve just been written in the wrong way.

Like all such headline-making research papers, context is everything. I am not sure that public-domain books only, written in English only, from a western canon only, are fully representative of the rich and increasingly human diverse fictional world today. But the decline in actual biodiversity is terrifyingly real. According to the latest reports from the UN and WWF, we have not only lost 60% of animal populations since 1970, but one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction if we do not act now.

Has that profound sense of loss in fact made animals more attractive to fiction writers? There is certainly no shortage of animals in the world of children’s literature. My latest book, The Wild Before – about tackling biodiversity decline – has a hare as a main character, and an animal cast, following in the tradition of books such as Watership Down. This past year alone has seen critically acclaimed children’s books starring a stranded polar bear, a haunting Greenland shark and a magical talking stray cat.

It is no coincidence that The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows and the Beatrix Potter books, early children’s classics of anthropomorphism, emerged out of the Industrial Revolution and the first huge jump in biodiversity decline. It appears that the less connected we are to other species, the more their mystery and appeal deepens. Would either Judith Kerr have invited a tiger in for tea, or Yann Martel set one sailing across the ocean in Life of Pi, if encounters with those endangered creatures were commonplace? Would the bestiary of fantasy creatures, from Tolkien’s wargs to George RR Martin’s direwolves (based on an extinct species), have captured our imagination if real wolves weren’t so absent from our landscape?

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The Gilded Edge: Bohemian Tragedy

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Bohemian literary colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., gained notoriety in the early 20th century not only for its drunken bonfire parties, embrace of free love, and hosting of left-leaning poets and writers such as Robinson Jeffers, Sinclair Lewis and Jack London. It also became infamous in those decades for a tragic love triangle that resulted in three suicides.

In “The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle That Shook America,” Catherine Prendergast, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, exposes the myth behind the colony’s creation and the desperate powerlessness and exploitation of two women involved in that circle.

The book centers around the poet George Sterling, his wife, Carrie, and the poet Nora May French. Sterling and French had a passionate love affair, and over the course of the unfurling tragedy, all three ended up taking their own lives.

Ms. Prendergast, in her first work of narrative nonfiction, organizes her book as a dual narrative: the story of the characters in the love triangle, interwoven with her own detective work in the archives. She ties these two strands together beginning in San Francisco, less than a year after the earthquake and firestorms of 1906 that razed much of the city. French takes abortion pills to end a pregnancy, but also writes about the experience amid her painful contractions. “It takes some kind of woman to write a letter about an abortion to her boyfriend while she’s administering it,” notes Ms. Prendergast, who soon adds that it is one of the very few early-20th-century first-person accounts of abortion in existence. French survives that terrible experience, but nine months later, despondent and with “no taste for the poor compensations of living,” she dies in Carrie’s arms, at the Sterlings’ cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

In explaining why this happened, and the subsequent cyanide suicides of George and Carrie, Ms. Prendergast examines the seamy truth of the Carmel colony—that Sterling was, in fact, hired by the Carmel Development Co. to entice his circle of San Francisco friends to what was then “a square mile of nearly barren dirt next to a bay.”

Carrie, whose mother had run a boardinghouse, often found herself single-handedly feeding the colony’s residents in her cottage, struggling to find adequate provisions when money was tight. Meanwhile, George was openly carrying on affairs with women who visited or decamped to Carmel, most notably French but many others as well. Both Carrie and Nora were what were then called New Women, those on “the trailing edge of the Gilded Age who sought to enjoy the spoils of economic expansion.”

Sterling, a protégé of the writer Ambrose Bierce, was San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate and a prominent member of the city’s Bohemian Club. A mostly forgotten poet today, he wrote plays for the club’s midsummer gatherings and was held in high regard by many of its members.

But in the years after French’s death, Sterling struggled with alcohol and faced an uncertain future, with constant financial stress. In 1926, a few days after the 19th anniversary of French’s suicide, Sterling arranged a banquet at the Bohemian Club for the critic H.L. Mencken, but never made it to the festivities. He burned most of his papers and killed himself.

Ms. Prendergast makes a convincing argument that French, who died at the age of 26, was a more gifted poet than Sterling. She was, as the author tells us, “the sensation in her time.” Yet she was repeatedly exploited. “Nora May French, whose reputation was used to bolster the colony’s image, was passed along a line of Bohemian men who treated her as a perpetual ingenue, co-opting her talent in an attempt to claim her as their personal discovery; they plied her with unwanted editorial advice while maneuvering her toward the bedroom.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (The link is supposed to be free, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall. He hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG will not include an Amazon ad showing the cover because, while the marketing department for the idiot publisher (Randy Penguin) likely worked hard to get a Wall Street Journal weekend review, they’re holding to book for its official release date (October 12) to make a big splash in physical bookstores.

PG predicts that more than a few WSJ readers (who, on average, have lots of discretionary income with which to purchase interesting books, antique cars and a lot of other things) will have forgotten about the book and the review in nine days. PG just checked to confirm that The Wall Street Journal is the largest paid circulation newspaper in the US.

With an apparent list price of $28 for the ebook (discounted to $14.99 by Zon), the same price as the hardcover, Randy Penguin is apparently trying to induce people to purchase the printed book, which generates a much lower per-copy profit for the publisher than the ebook does because Bad Amazon or something like that.

Apparently, there is not a review for the book in The New York Times (Sunday issue less than half the circulation of WSJ). If there is one closer to the release date, we’ll know that the geniuses of Randy Penguin mistook the little bang for the big bang in two different ways.

What is Upmarket Fiction? And Book Club Fiction? Are They New Genres?

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Most writers have probably heard of “Upmarket fiction.” But you may have questions about it. Like, when should you use the term? And how do you figure out if your novel fits in the category? Is it considered a genre, like Romance or Mystery? And is it the same as “Book Club Fiction?”

It’s not surprising if you have questions. Because bookstores don’t have a section designated “Upmarket.” And you’re not going to find it as a category on Amazon.

I don’t particularly like the phrase. It sounds kind of snooty, doesn’t it? But I love the books.

And they are a hot commodity in the publishing industry right now.  Agent Jessica Faust says “It’s a term we didn’t use 15 years ago, but one that’s hot today…I’m hungry for more upmarket fiction.”

I’ve had a number of readers ask me about it recently, so I figured I’d better do some research.

So What’s the Definition of Upmarket Fiction?

You can find lots of lists of fiction genres, but you won’t see “Upmarket fiction” included. You may have seen somebody mention “Book Club” novels, but you won’t find that section in a bookstore, either.

According to what I’ve read, “Upmarket” and “Book Club” fiction are pretty synonymous terms, and you can use either when querying an agent.

They define fiction that fills the gap between genre and literary fiction.

These are meaty stories that book reading groups can discuss over a nice chardonnay. They have thought-provoking themes and memorable characters. But they’re not so dense that everybody has to lie about having finished them. 

. . . .

Some Examples of Upmarket Fiction

  • Mexican Gothic — Silvia Moreno
  • About a Boy — Nick Hornby
  • Where the Crawdads Sing — Delia Owens
  • Squeeze Me — Carl Hiaasen
  • Like Water for Elephants — Sara Gruen
  • The Lovely Bones — Alice Sebold
  • She’s Come Undone — Wally Lamb
  • Pay it Forward — Catherine Ryan Hyde

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

PG admits a mistake

After receiving a couple of emails, PG realized that his comments about Critical Race Theory broke his personal unwritten rule to keep politics off of The Passive Voice.

PG has friends of many years standing with whom he has never had a discussion about politics.

Had such a discussion occurred, PG would likely not have agreed with the political views of those friends, but he would never sacrifice friendship because of political differences. Rather than bring any sort of cloud over these friendships, PG is happy to discuss other items of mutual interest and learns something from virtually every such discussion.

Unfortunately, at present in the United States, there is a lot of vitriol exchanged by people of differing political views. Some people in a variety of political spheres seem to feel that politics is the most important topic at all times and in all places and are quite intolerant of those with differing politics.

PG suspects that a lengthy and very stressful period of economic and social shutdown due to Covid plus a nasty political season last November have robbed more than a few people of a sense of community feeling with fellow citizens and residents who believe differently than they do.

PG certainly hopes there will be a resurgence of comity, a feeling joint local and national purpose and greater respect for those whose views are different. PG would love to see a huge surge of politeness from sea to shining sea.

Stand Up to Censorship In Schools

From Publishers Weekly:

After mounting pressure, including a student protest, a school district in York, Pa., has reversed a controversial book ban. But the fact that this ban was implemented in the first place means the conversation about book banning is far from over. Titles that were targeted include I Am Malala, Hidden Figures, and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History. The main thing those books, and almost all of the books that were banned, share in common: they are about, or written by, people of color.

As an African American woman in publishing, I fear for my voice and the voices of my authors. Will my authors be turned away in libraries and school systems? Considered “too political” by parents?

. . . .

Wise Ink is one of the few publishers led by a Black woman, cofounder Dara Beevas. Beevas, who has also written the Li’l Queens picture book series about real-life Black and brown queens, says, “For African American children, a lot of our stories are rightfully about our oppression. But there are other stories, too. And a lot of those stories are stories that I feel like have been suppressed on purpose.”

. . . .

Since last October, educational institutions have canceled diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in response to orders against teaching “diverse concepts” and the public backlash against critical race theory. This year, Texas passed a law aimed at restricting discussions of race and history in schools. Politicians and nonminority officials seem to be trying to eliminate Black history and discussions surrounding race altogether. Sure, students could have these discussions outside of school, but why exclude the one place they congregate for most of their day? Banning books and resources that are connected to people of color and racism not only ensures the embedding of white-centric thinking in a new generation of children, but it ensures censorship of minority stories and voices.

“Resisting telling the truth is not ever a path that is going to get us closer to the kinds of healing, the kinds of interdependence, the kinds of relationships that we want to be in,” Trina Olson, cofounder of Team Dynamics and coauthor of Hiring Revolution: A Guide to Disrupt Racism & Sexism in Hiring, states in the podcast she cohosts, Behave.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Perhaps because it’s from Publishers Weekly, but PG feels like the good people vs. bad people story around which the OP is centered seems a little too convenient when expressed in racial terms.

Racial discrimination is real in the US and elsewhere, but, for PG, critical race theory is much more about Marxist philosophy and contemporary political arguments and ignoring some very obvious and material facts about American history than it is about contemporary racism.

But he could be wrong.

France is trying to protect booksellers from Amazon. Is it a decade too late?

From Quartz:

French lawmakers are coming to the defense of booksellers who continue to lose business to major retailers like Amazon with a law that would set a fixed minimum delivery rate for books.

The bill, which was presented before the National Assembly today (Sept. 29), is the latest move to even the playing field for independent booksellers, who face competition not only from Amazon, but also French online retailers such as Fnac and Cultura.

“Small booksellers face costs that are far away from those of major retailers,” Géraldine Bannier, the law’s sponsor, said before the National Assembly. In the age of Amazon, she argued, booksellers have to make a choice between eating the cost of delivery themselves or charging their customers, in which case they may risk losing a sale.

French bookshops have for years been protected by a 1981 law that mandated books be sold at a fixed price, and not be discounted at more than 5%. The National Assembly passed another law in 2014 forbidding online booksellers from giving a 5% discount or free delivery to customers, though Amazon fought back by setting delivery fees at just 1 cent.

. . . .

Ryan Raffaelli, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied how bookstores remain resilient despite Amazon competition, says that independent sellers tend to do well by “bringing people into physical spaces and creating spaces for conversation.” This has proven challenging for stores during the coronavirus pandemic, and some French sellers have suffered for it. The iconic Paris bookstore Gibert Jeune closed its doors in May.

No matter whether France’s law passes, Amazon will continue to take risks that independent booksellers cannot, Raffaelli says. The retailer is willing to be a “loss leader”—that is, sell products at a loss—because it can bring in revenue across other categories.

This approach paid off for the company between 2008 and 2018, when independent booksellers’ retail sales declined by an annual average of 3%, whereas e-commerce sites including Amazon and Apple boosted book sales by 5.6% and captured 16.5% of the French market, according to the SLF.

Still, Raffaelli says the latest French tactic is different from similar anti-competition lawsuits brought by US booksellers against Amazon because the legislation is underpinned by the belief that bookstores are not just a form of commerce, but a cultural product. Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot echoed the same belief after the law was passed by the French Senate in June, saying “a book is not a good like others.”

“When you think about a bookstore as a cultural product, that creates a different rationale for why you would protect an industry,” Raffaelli says. “If you truly believe that bookstores are a form of art and culture, then you can potentially approach how you regulate it differently than if it’s just about transaction and free trade.”

Link to the rest at Quartz

Who are Political Children’s Books For?

From The Drift:

“Harriet Tubman was born a slave, and her story could have ended there. Instead, she persisted, escaping from slavery and becoming the most famous ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad,” begins the first section of Chelsea Clinton’s baffling 2017 children’s book, She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. True to its subtitle, the book marches on through thirteen stories of women persisting. Helen Keller persisted, by learning to read and write. Nellie Bly, told by a male colleague that working women were a “monstrosity,” persisted to become a working woman anyway. Sally Ride persisted to overcome stereotypes about women in STEM to travel to space. Ruby Bridges persisted when she attended kindergarten despite threats on her life from segregationists. Oprah Winfrey persisted by rising from humble origins to media superstardom. In case you managed to miss the message, it appears in bold, colorful letters in every woman’s story: “She persisted.”

This phrase, if you have managed to attain blissful amnesia about the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, is drawn from something Mitch McConnell said about Elizabeth Warren, after the Senate voted to stop her from speaking during Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearings. “She was warned. She was given an explanation,” McConnell said. “Nevertheless, she persisted.” This became an immediate feminist rallying cry, and was printed on bags, posters, pins, and t-shirts. In 2018, it was adopted as the “theme” of Women’s History Month (which, you might argue, already has a theme). Clinton notes in the dedication that she was “inspired by Senator Elizabeth Warren,” though Warren is not one of the book’s thirteen women who persisted.

This contemporary quote is an ill-considered retroactive framing device for a book about thirteen American women who lived during different times and under wildly different circumstances. There is an obvious flattening that occurs here: Winfrey’s persistence looked nothing like Bridges’s, or for that matter, Bly’s. Clinton applies a one-size-fits-all pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative to multiple women’s stories in a way that ranges from tedious to outrageous; to suggest that Harriet Tubman’s story “could have ended there” if not for her persistence is to imply that people who were enslaved had individual responsibility to free themselves. Through grit and determination, the book suggests, any woman can succeed at any set of challenges! (And, it is careful to imply in some stories, pull other women up with them.) Reading She Persisted, one might get the impression that the experience of American womanhood over the course of the last 200 years has resembled that of doing an obstacle course — and winning.

She Persisted, whose original list price was $17.99, has sold nearly 450,000 copies and spent 47 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Unsurprisingly, it spawned sequels. There is now She Persisted Around the World, featuring a grab-bag of international women that includes J.K. Rowling, Malala Yousafzai, and nineteenth-century New Zealand suffragist Kate Sheppard. There is also She Persisted in Sports, about American Olympians who “changed the game.” It has even become a kind of franchise: there’s a series of chapter book biographies written by other authors that are sold under the She Persisted heading. (Clinton writes the intros.)

The project is a blockbuster in a genre that has become increasingly popular over the past decade: children’s books by political, or politics-adjacent, figures. Recent examples have been written by Kamala Harris, her niece Meena Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Charlotte and Karen Pence, Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Sonia Sotomayor, Callista Gingrich, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Jenna Bush Hager, and Barbara Pierce Bush. These join the realm of a related subset of picture books that are not by politicians themselves but that ride the coattails of political celebrity. The hagiographies include I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark; Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg; Revolution Road: A Bernie Bedtime Story; Little People, Big Dreams: Michelle Obama and Little People, Big Dreams: Kamala Harris; Joey: The Story of Joe Biden; Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead; Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope; Journey to Freedom: Condoleezza Rice; Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice; Today’s Heroes: Colin Powell and Today’s Heroes: Ben Carson; My Dad: John McCain (by Meghan); The ABCs of AOC: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from A to Z; a series comprised of Donald and the Fake News, Donald Builds the Wall! and Donald Drains the Swamp!; Elizabeth Warren: Nevertheless She Persisted; and, most recently, Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor. Forthcoming this fall: Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi Calls the House to Order and Pinkie Promises by Elizabeth Warren.

These books are typically upbeat, didactic, and unimaginative. Many of them repackage the same themes and characters; frequently, authors select a set number of historical figures to celebrate. Obama picked thirteen American “heroes;” Chelsea Clinton picked thirteen American women; Gillibrand picked ten suffragists. They often rely on the repetition of certain catchphrases, so there is no way to miss the point, even when the point is remarkably banal. Yet they keep coming: in August, the imprint Philomel Books announced that it would be releasing ten more chapter books in the extended She Persisted universe, along with another picture book, She Persisted in Science: Brilliant Women Who Made a Difference.

One might feel compelled to ask why so many of these books exist, but the main reason is obvious: money. In 2003, Madonna published a picture book called The English Roses, a moralistic story about friendship and jealousy. Despite the fact that Madonna was not an obvious fit for a young audience, the book debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and reportedly sold more than a million copies worldwide. It has been translated into 42 languages. Like She Persisted, English Roses led to spinoffs and a chapter book series. And it became a kind of test case, evidence that even an unexpected celebrity author could produce a bestselling book for kids. As in the grown-up books market, an established name — any kind of name — goes pretty far. Unlike your average children’s authors, celebrities can leverage massive social media followings and public relations networks to promote their books; they might even get booked on late night shows. Since Madonna’s hit, celebrities as disparate as Katie Couric and Pharrell Williams have authored kids’ books. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but many employ ghostwriters or co-authors.) With enough starpower, these authors can command big advances: Meghan Markle was rumored to have been paid £500,000 for a children’s book called The Bench that, in a rare turn of events, was panned by critics. Still, it hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list for picture books.

Link to the rest at The Drift

What would we do without traditional publishers to curate our culture?

Don’t ditch standard English. Teach it better

From The Economist:

Teaching english as a first language is not easy—many youngsters leave school feeling they never quite mastered its finer points. Recently some commentators have been wondering whether the standard version of English really deserves to be singled out as “proper” and worthy of teaching at all. The debate they set off has been unedifying because of entrenched views that have as much to do with politics as with language.

Speaking recently to the Daily Telegraph, Willem Hollmann of Lancaster University argued that standard English is not uniquely “correct”. This view is common among linguists. Today’s standard English just happens to descend from the dialect prevailing near the seats of power (London) and learning (Oxford and Cambridge) at the critical time when printing took off. It uses “you were”, and not “you was”, only because that dialect did so—not because “you were” is more logical. (If standard English were logical, “to be” would have a single past-tense form, as every other verb does.)

Linguists know perfectly well, though, that standard English does have a social superiority, if not a grammatical one. It is the language of serious writing (including linguistics journals) and formal speech. It binds together Dorset, Kent, Yorkshire and London, as well as Alabama, Massachusetts and California. It can be spoken with any accent, allowing a speaker from Belfast to talk to one from Johannesburg or Auckland with little misunderstanding. There is nothing wrong with black vernacular American or Yorkshire English; they just don’t happen to be the dialect that newspapers are written in, or parliamentary debates are conducted in. Both halves of that proposition are equally true, and pupils should be apprised of both.

But when linguists make this case, they are often misconstrued as saying students should not be marked down if, for instance, they write “you was” instead of “you were” when deploying standard English. No longer considering “you was” to be incorrect in formal prose would imply the end of any standard at all.

Even from the left-wing perspective that many academics share, that would be counterproductive. Sociolinguists are at pains to point out that all dialects are valuable to their speakers—Yorkshire English and so on persist for that very reason. But standard English is valuable to its speakers too. It is dear to those lucky enough to have it as their native tongue (a category that includes most newspaper columnists). But it is also hugely important to those many strivers who didn’t grow up with it—yet hope to master it, so that they can join the wider community around the world that uses it.

And there are ways to inculcate it without resorting to snobbery. To begin with, it helps to avoid irrelevant pet peeves. In a column in the Times replying to Mr Hollmann and supposedly sticking up for standard English, Clare Foges was distracted by things like accent (saying fencin for fencing), slang (including the British tag-question innit?) and minor variations such as off of in place of off.

These ephemera have nothing whatever to do with standard English. “G-dropping” isn’t lazy, merely an accent; it used to be an upper-class habit, too. Nor does relaxed have to mean incorrect: innit may not be common in the boardroom, but it has its place in casual British English. And off of is standard in America, if not in Britain.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Quite a number of years ago, competitive debaters on elite high school or college debate teams were advised to not use their normal Southern or other regional accents during debate competitions.

The rationale behind the advice was that debate judges, particularly at the most advanced levels of major debate tournaments, would likely speak standard American English and regard a notable regional accent as a sign of a less-accomplished intellect and judge the accented arguments more critically.

How Indie Bookstores Beat Amazon At The Bookselling Game: Lessons Here For Every Retailer

From Forbes:

For the past eight years, Harvard professor Ryan Raffaelli immersed himself in the world of independent bookstores. Concluding his study, he just released a working paper, entitled “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores,” that summarizes the findings from his extensive research, which included a series of interviews and focus groups, visits to bookstores in 26 states, and a detailed analysis of newspaper and trade journal articles.

While this working paper has immediate application to bookstore owners and managers, its implications go much further. It provides a road map for any retailer —independent or otherwise — into how to survive, even thrive against the competitive onslaught of Amazon.

“My research examines how industries, organizations, and business leaders reinvent themselves in the face of radical technological change,” Raffaelli writes. “In the context of retail, seismic shifts are affecting the way consumers engage with online, big box, and local retailers. Independent bookstores provide a story of hope for community-led businesses.”

Calling the resurgence of indie bookstores “novel” is putting it mildly. They were on the verge of collapse, with only 1,651 independent bookstores operating in 2009. Since then, the tide has turned and indies are on the rebound. The reasons why are detailed below.

Struggle for survival

Prior to 1995 when Amazon arrived on the scene, the number of independent booksellers reached historic highs, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA). But five short years later, their numbers had dropped by 43%, decimated by competition not just from Amazon but big-box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders as well. From 2000 through 2009 the number of independents continued their steady decline.

And Amazon didn’t just take down the independents. The big-boxes struggled to survive too. Borders went under in 2011. Barnes & Noble dropped from 681 stores in 2005 to 627 at the end of 2019, after it was acquired by hedge fund Elliott Advisors. Elliott also owns U.K.-based bookstore chain Waterstones, with 238 stores, and has put management of both chains under the wing of James Daunt, who was an independent bookstore owner before becoming CEO of Waterstones in 2011.

Unlike the way typical chains – bookstores or any other retail category – operate where each store is laid out and stocked pretty much the same, every Waterstones’ store is unique. Each store looks, feels and operates like an independent, not a chain store.

Waterstones and other successful indie bookstores follow the 3Cs model outlined in Raffaelli’s working paper: community, curation, and convening. Bookstores use these 3Cs as leverage to beat Amazon at its bookselling game.

. . . .

Building a community with customers

The concept of community as described by Raffaelli extends beyond localism as a social movement and a way for shoppers to support their local economy. Community connects customers with content in the store to build truly meaningful relationships.

“We basically took our relationship to the community and redefined what the bookstore is,” a bookseller said. “It is about the community which surrounds the bookstore and those interactions between author and reader, and readers and booksellers, and readers with each other.”

No doubt, there is a special connection that booksellers and their customers feel for the content contained in books, but the same kind of passion for brands and products in other categories is evident in all great retailers as well.

Who runs or works in a fashion boutique but passionate fashionistas or in a home furnishings store but design and decorating enthusiasts? The same goes for garden centers, pet boutiques, gourmet shops, wine stores, toy stores, gift, card and stationery shops; the list goes on. Those retailers’ passion for their product category draws in equally passionate customers who together build a community through their shared passion.

“I am first a businessperson. But who would be in this particular business if we didn’t also love books,” said this bookseller.

And just like readers have a special connection to certain authors, customers feel a special connection to brands, designers, and the people who create the products they are passionate about.

A retailers’ passion for their products and their customers is magnetic. It is the spirit that binds all together into community.

While it is essential for retailers to build their community in the real world, they also must extend their reach digitally to build an online community as well through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“The key to independent bookstores’ growth in the digital era has been their strong and deep ties to neighbors,” writes Raffaelli. “A robust digital presence has reinforced those communal connections. The connection between the physical and online communities strengthens both.”

Link to the rest at Forbes

PG enjoys his participation in several different communities, but none of them are commercially-based.

As he has mentioned before, during his various forays into bookstores in recent years, he’s found little to attract or interest him.

For PG, Amazon is a much more information-rich locale for book shopping than any physical bookstore he’s visited during the last ten years.

On Amazon, instead of obtaining the opinion of a bookstore employee who is unlikely to know anything of note concerning the subject the book addresses, on Amazon, PG can read a lot of different opinions from people who have purchased and read (or returned) the book.

Of course, PG is aware of purchased reviews and employees of the publisher who jump on to write a glowing review. Perhaps if he were more interested in popular genre works, it might be easier to fool him with a phony review, but in PG’s routine reading choices, there doesn’t seem to be an issue with fake reviews. If he buys an ebook that doesn’t live up to his expectations, he’ll return it in a trice.

(PG notes the age of the OP, but more recent counterparts expressing the same ideas are easy to find.)

Reading was like a drug

Reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days.

Richard Wright, Black Boy

Men can starve

Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.

Richard Wright, Native Son

Outcasts and Desperados

From The London Review of Books:

The Man Who Lived Underground 
by Richard Wright.

When​ Richard Wright sailed to France in 1946, he was 38 years old and already a legend. He was America’s most famous black writer, the author of two books hailed as classics the moment they were published: the 1940 novel Native Son and the 1945 memoir Black Boy. By ‘choosing exile’, as he put it, he hoped both to free himself from American racism and to put an ocean between himself and the Communist Party of the United States, in which he’d first come to prominence as a writer of proletarian fiction only to find himself accused of subversive, Trotskyist tendencies. In Paris he was a celebrity. French writers and American expatriates flocked to the Café Monaco, where he held court a short walk from his Left Bank flat. ‘Dick greeted everyone with boisterous condescension,’ Chester Himes remembered. ‘It was obvious he was the king thereabouts.’

His place on the throne was shakier than he imagined. The novels he wrote in Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life, failed to deliver on the promise of Native Son, the incendiary tale of a poor black chauffeur in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, who achieves a grisly sense of selfhood after killing two women: his black girlfriend and the daughter of his wealthy white employer. But even that novel’s reputation declined, thanks in large part to another black American in Paris. In 1949 James Baldwin described Native Son as a modern-day Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ‘a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy’, arguing that Bigger Thomas ‘admits the possibility of his being subhuman’ and that Wright was no less guilty than Harriet Beecher Stowe of insisting that a person’s ‘categorisation … cannot be transcended.’ Baldwin, whose success Wright had done much to promote, wasn’t the only protégé to turn against him. In 1963 Ralph Ellison wrote that, in Bigger Thomas, Wright had created not a black character other black people would recognise, but ‘a near subhuman indictment of white oppression’ crudely ‘designed to shock whites out of their apathy’. Ellison’s hyper-cerebral protagonist in Invisible Man, who is able to see far beyond his own condition, was a pointed rejoinder to Bigger’s inarticulate and explosive rage.

That rage had once been important to Ellison too. During their days in the CPUSA, he had sent a letter to Wright commending Bigger’s ‘revolutionary significance’. Readers horrified by Bigger’s violence, Ellison insisted, ‘fail to see that what’s bad in Bigger from the point of view of bourgeois society is good from our point of view … Would that all Negroes were as psychologically free as Bigger and as capable of positive action!’ This argument was echoed in 1966 by the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who called Bigger ‘the black rebel of the ghetto’, with ‘no trace … of the Martin Luther King-type self-effacing love for his oppressors’. For Cleaver, who wrote in his memoir that he had practised raping black women before graduating to white women, Bigger embodied an authentic, revolutionary black masculinity that Baldwin, a gay man, naturally despised.

The Black Power movement’s patriarchal and homophobic embrace of Wright did little to salvage his reputation, especially after the rise of black feminism in the 1970s. In Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1978), Michele Wallace traced the movement’s ‘love affair with Black Macho’ back to Native Son. Black women writers never forgave Wright for having once accused Zora Neale Hurston of writing ‘in the safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live’. It didn’t matter that he had denounced the absence of female speakers at the 1956 Conference of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, insisting that black men could only be free if black women were too. Or that in a 1957 book of reportage he had catalogued the forms of oppression suffered by women in contemporary Spain, comparing the Catholic cult of ‘female purity’ to the Ku Klux Klan’s defence of white womanhood. Thanks to Native Son, he continued to be associated with the idea that, in Darryl Pinckney’s words, ‘the black man can only come to life as the white man’s nightmare, the defiler of white women.’

Black feminists weren’t the only ones to take offence. In 1986 the novelist David Bradley confessed that the first time he read Native Son,

I shed no tears for Bigger. I wanted him dead; by legal means if possible, by lynching if necessary … I did not see Bigger Thomas as a symbol of any kind of black man. To me he was a sociopath, pure and simple … If the price of becoming a black writer was following the model of Native Son, I would just have to write like a honky.

Novelists never completely shake off an association with the murderers they invent: Dostoevsky is still remembered for Raskolnikov, Camus for Meursault. The difference in Wright’s case is that Bigger Thomas is practically all he is remembered for. Wright is not just blamed for Bigger but almost mistaken for him.

On the surface, Wright’s life bore little resemblance to Bigger’s: he was a child of the rural South not the northern ghetto, a self-made intellectual and writer. But as a young man in Chicago he had had a series of menial jobs in hospitals and the postal service and could identify all too easily with Bigger’s anger at the white world. He had known Bigger’s fear of white people’s arbitrary power – in his view, this was the ‘fundamental emotion guiding black personality and behaviour’, even if it sometimes appeared in the ‘disguise that is called Negro laughter’. It wasn’t only whites he wanted to provoke with Native Son, but members of the decorous black middle class, who felt that a figure like Bigger Thomas was a threat to their precarious status on the margins of white America.

Native Son was a work of shocking intransigence in its portrayal of black rage, in its treatment of liberal whites and, above all, in its violence. After suffocating his employer’s daughter, Mary Dalton, with a pillow – he’s terrified that she might alert her blind mother to his presence in her bedroom, and that he might be accused of rape – Bigger slices up her corpse and burns it in a furnace. His violence is recounted as if it were the concentrated payback for hundreds of years of anti-black violence and humiliation, and described with graphic relish. When he murders his girlfriend, Bess, to prevent her from revealing his crime, he feels a rush of exhilaration: at last he has accomplished ‘something that was all his own’, an act no one would have imagined him daring enough to execute. ‘Elation filled him.’ No longer emasculated by fear, no longer ‘a black timid Negro boy’ in a white man’s world, he has ‘a sense of wholeness’, of power over his oppressors. He is a man who has ‘evened the score’.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

Publishers Should Include Translators Names on the Cover of Books

From The Authors Guild:

“As the U.S. counterpart to the UK’s Society of Authors (SOA), the Authors Guild fully supports today’s open letter from the SOA to all published writers asking them to request that their publishers provide cover credits for the people who translate their work, “ said Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, which earlier this year issued the first model publishing contract for literary translators.

“Translators play an irreplaceable role in creating a vibrant world literature and introducing new readers to important works by authors across the globe. Yet all too often they are overlooked when it comes to the publishing industry, viewed as neither authors nor editors. It is long past time that translators be acknowledged for their contributions by including their names on the book’s cover. That’s only the first step, however; translators should also receive royalties and a share of subsidiarity rights. We also urge both authors and publishers to hire more translators of color or from diverse backgrounds to better reflect and capture the unique perspectives they bring when translating a manuscript,” she added.

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

Here’s the letter created by the Society of Authors:

For too long, we’ve taken translators for granted. It is thanks to translators that we have access to world literatures past and present.

It is thanks to translators that we are not merely isolated islands of readers and writers talking amongst ourselves, hearing only ourselves.

Translators are the life-blood of both the literary world and the book trade which sustains it. They should be properly recognised, celebrated and rewarded for this. The first step towards doing this seems an obvious one. From now on we will be asking, in our contracts and communications, that our publishers ensure, whenever our work is translated, that the name of the translator appears on the front cover.

Could a machine have an unconscious?

From N+1:

IT WAS FIRST DESCRIBED to me by a friend who works in the industry as autocomplete on crack, after the technology that endowed our phones with the quality everyone pretends to, but does not actually, want in a lover — the ability to finish your thoughts. Instead of predicting the next word in a sentence, GPT-3 would produce several paragraphs in whatever style it intuited from your prompt. If you prompted it Once upon a time, it would produce a fairy tale. If you typed two lines in iambic pentameter, it would write a sonnet. If you wrote something vaguely literary, like We gathered to see the ship and all its splendor, like pilgrims at an altar,it would continue in this vein: 

I stood among the crowd watching each bus disgorge passengers onto wooden planks laid over mudflats. The guests swarmed into town for their free visit to another world: our island on Earth where strange new gods were worshipped; here they could gather at some primitive shrine from which they could send offerings back home or sell out-of-date clothes in pawnshops full of old junk salvaged from forgotten times....

If you wrote a news headline, it would write an article on that topic, complete with fake facts, fake statistics, and fake quotes by fake sources, good enough that human readers could rarely guess that it was authored by a machine. The potential for malicious use was so obvious that OpenAI, the lab that made it, agreed to grant access to only a handful of well-vetted researchers, spurring the publicity-friendly lore that it was “too dangerous to release.”

GPT-3 is a natural language processing algorithm. It belongs to a new generation of AI models called Transformers, a technology whose early iterations were named after Sesame Street characters (BERT, ELMO, GROVER, as though the somewhat frightening allusion to children’s television could be mitigated with a softer, more educational one. That GPT-2 and its later, more sophisticated upgrade, GPT-3, dropped this convention might be read as a sign of their terrifying power. With 175 billion “parameters” — mathematical representations of language patterns — GPT-3 had initiated what was being called a Cambrian explosion in natural language processing.

. . . .

I say that it “read” the internet, but the preferred terminology is that GPT-3 scraped the web, that it ingested most of what humans have published online, that it ate the internet — metaphors meant to emphasize that the process was entirely unconscious. The frequent reminders in the machine-learning community that the model is mindless and agentless, that it has no actual experience of the world, were repeated so often they began to feel compulsive, one of those verbal fixations meant to quell the suspicion that the opposite is true.

. . . .

I’D BEEN FOLLOWING all this because I was writing a book about technology, or rather because I’d reached an impasse and wasn’t writing at all. I spent hours each day doing what could passably be called “research,” trawling the feeds of Hacker News and machine-learning Reddit, where the lucky elite who had access to GPT-3 posted the results of their experiments. One trope was to ask it to imitate well-known authors. It could do Dante, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth. It could do Ginsberg (Endless suicide of the real world! Solitary! Solitary! Sisyphus! the rock! the road!).It could do Harry Potter in the style of Ernest Hemingway (It was a cold day on Privet Drive. A child cried. Harry felt nothing. He was dryer than dust. He had been silent too long. He had not felt love. He had scarcely felt hate.) Because we were all on lockdown, and my social life had devolved into sending and receiving novelties from the internet, I sometimes texted snippets of these outputs to friends, most of whom seemed to think it was a gimmick, or some kind of fancy toy. 

“What is the point of this device?” one asked.

Freud claimed that technology only solved problems that technology itself had created. The alienation and malaise caused by one modern invention was momentarily relieved by another, a process he compared to “the enjoyment obtained by putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again.” Nobody seemed capable of articulating what problem these language models were designed to solve. There was some chatter about writing assistance, about therapy bots, about a future where you’d never have to write another email (“Can A.I. bring back the three-martini lunch?” asked Fortune), all of which seemed to skirt the technology’s most obvious use: replacing the underpaid and inefficient writers who supplied the content that fed the insatiable maw of the internet — people like me. 

OpenAI was founded in 2015 as a nonprofit research lab devoted to creating a safe path to Artificial General Intelligence (AI that rivals human intelligence). Funded by an A-team of private investors, including Elon Musk, Sam Altman, and Peter Thiel, its mission was to create artificial intelligence that “benefits all of humanity.” In 2019, however, the lab announced that it was transitioning to a for-profit model “in order to stay relevant.” Last fall, Microsoft exclusively licensed GPT-3, claiming that the language technology would benefit its customers by “directly aiding human creativity and ingenuity in areas like writing and composition.” 

From what I could tell, the few writers who’d caught wind of the technology were imperiously dismissive, arguing that the algorithm’s work was derivative and formulaic, that originality required something else, something uniquely human — though none of them could say what, exactly. GPT-3 can imitate natural language and even certain simple stylistics, but it... cannot perform the deep-level analytics required to make great art or great writing. I was often tempted to ask these skeptics what contemporary literature they were reading. The Reddit and Hacker News crowds appeared more ready to face the facts: GPT-3 may show how unconscious some human activity is, including writing. How much of what I write is essentially autocomplete?

. . . .

WRITERS, SOMEONE once said, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. The question of who said it is not really important. The whole point of the metaphor was to destabilize the notion of authorial agency by suggesting that literature is the product of unconscious processes that are essentially combinatorial. Just as algorithms manipulate discrete symbols, creating new lines of code via endless combinations of 0s and 1s, so writers build stories by reassembling the basic tropes and structures that are encoded in the world’s earliest myths, often — when things are going well — without fully realizing what they are doing. The most fertile creative states, like the most transcendent spiritual experiences, dissolve consciousness and turn the artist into an inanimate tool — a channel, a conduit. I often think of the writer who said she wished she could feel about sex as she did about writing: That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I’d felt it before — every writer has — but at some point during the pandemic, the recombinant nature of writing became, instead, an infinite puzzle, a system whose discrete parts could be endlessly deconstructed and reassembled. I could never get the combination right. My critical instincts had turned pathological. I wrote and rewrote until the language was hollowed out: Potemkin sentences. 

The blockage had a larger context, which I’m reluctant to get into here but is doubtlessly relevant. A number of things had recently surfaced: memories I’d repressed, secrets I’d kept from myself. The most significant was that I’d been shamed as a child for writing, that I’d been confronted and punished for words that were meant to be private. It had happened more than once, and the shame I felt then was more or less identical to the shame I experienced each time I published something. I had, according to my therapist, chosen a profession that required me to continually revisit this wound, under the delusion that I could fix it or control it, that if I wrote something entirely pure and flawless the curse would be lifted and I would finally be free. I knew all this, but knowledge is not everything when it comes to compulsions. Part of me preferred the French term, automatisme de repetition. Repetition automatism: the tendency to unconsciously seek out the pains of the past, like a machine stuck in a feedback loop.

. . . .

PSYCHOANALYSIS GREW out of the realization that the most fundamental stratum of the mind was essentially a machine. Throughout the late 19th century, the unconscious was known as psychological automatism, a term popularized by the pre-Freudian psychoanalyst Pierre Janet, who argued that it was an “elementary form of activity as completely determined as an automaton.” The question was: how to get the machine to speak? Janet was among the first to experiment with automatic writing, bringing a rite of the séance parlor into the laboratory. His patients — Parisian hysterics — had experienced traumas they could not remember, and Janet believed that their minds had become dissociated into “subsystems,” the lowest of which was devoted to mechanically reproducing past experiences. 

He gave the women pen and paper, hypnotized them, then clapped his hands and commanded them to write. His case studies describe them scribbling away “in a machine-like state,” producing pages of text that they did not recognize, upon waking, as their own. My ideas are no longer comprehensible to myself,one wrote, they come of themselves.... I am nothing more than a puppet held by a string.Many of the women could recall in their writing memories they’d repressed. One who suffered from an inexplicable fear of cholera wrote about seeing two corpses during the last epidemic, something she had no memory of when awake. Another revealed that her tendency to fall down — which she’d long attributed to dizziness — was a compulsive reenactment of a suicide attempt years earlier, when she’d jumped into the Seine. 

Link to the rest at N+1

PG notes that sometimes when people write about writing, they are subject to wandering about.

My reflections

My reflections amount to a love story that is mostly made up, from memories that are mostly false, between people who were mainly not there. The things for which she was not there have her in them now more deeply because of her absence, and her effect on my way of seeing them. Anytime I note her absence from a thing, she arrives at once, as if summoned, entrenching herself more deeply than she exists in my memories of times when she was there, so that time, the sequence of what really happened, seems to curve around her.

Olivia Sudjic, Sympathy

How can independent bookstores begin to pay their booksellers a fair and living wage?

From Literary Hub:

We love indie bookstores. Even people who don’t read books love them. Insofar as movies and TV are a technicolor mirror of public perception, indie bookstores are wonderful and pure, quaint and charming—no one who works at (or owns!) an indie bookstore could be anything but a selfless and thoughtful champion of truth and beauty (even if they’re mean and sarcastic on the outside they most definitely have a heart of gold on the inside).

The problem with this widespread and rose-tinted version of independent bookstores is that it makes it easy to forget that to be a bookseller is to work an often thankless retail job for barely living wages with little to no benefits except for free books and the occasional opportunity to introduce local teens to the stories of Breece D’J Pancake or the early work of Anne Carson.

So how do we make bookselling—which, if we understand books as central to the ongoing attempt to puzzle out humanity and its complexities, is a worthy job—a better, longer-term career option for those who are most passionate about books?

This is one of the central questions at the heart of an upcoming two-part event called “Reimagining Bookstores.” Don’t let the title alarm you, this is not an app-based attempt to “disrupt” bookselling—in fact, the open forum is being co-hosted by a who’s-who of some of this country’s best bookstores, including Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA, San Francisco’s Booksmith, Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA, Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstore, and Seattle’s Third Place Books.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

PG doesn’t usually include multiple excerpts from the same source on the same day, but he was surprised to see the OP’s topic.

The unfortunate reality is that almost all bookstores are marginal businesses.

PG doubts that anyone who thinks much about a career that will allow her/him to support a family in the absence of a wealthy spouse would seriously consider employment in a bookstore as any sort of long-term solution to anything. If PG’s unsystematic assessment of the few physical bookstores he has entered during the last year or two is correct, many people who work in bookstores would not be likely candidates for any sort of work that could support a middle-class lifestyle.

PG lives in an area that includes a couple of large universities and occasionally sees a college-student type in a bookstore. Still, primarily, the employees strike PG as more of the drop-out, need-a-job-now types who worry that waiting tables in a restaurant would be too much work. At least, when you go home after your shift in the bookstore is finished, you don’t smell like french-fry oil.

Given the existence of Amazon, even bookstores in smaller communities where they’re the only bookstore in town don’t have much real pricing power. If they can sell pastries from a local bakery or even a local grocery store, they may earn higher profits from those sales than from books.

This situation is not just a reflection of the Amazon effect, however. When PG first learned that bookstores could return unsold copies of books to the publisher (via the distributor) for full credit, that was his first clue that the book business had significant built-in problems.

PG would be happy to know if any other class of retailers can routinely return as many unsold goods as they wish to the manufacturers without paying anything for the privilege of doing so after the goods had been handled, picked over, etc., by a significant number of prospective buyers.

Multiple Narrators, Multiple Truths

From The Literary Hub:

In my teens, I read only Victorian novels. The multiple narrator is such a prominent feature of 19th-century fiction that it’s possible I internalized the device inadvertently. Books such as MiddlemarchFrankenstein, and Wuthering Heights fed my already over-exercised imagination to the point where reality and fantasy were occasionally indistinguishable. Multiple narrator remains my storytelling technique of choice, as a reader and a writer.

. . . .

Of course, the multiple narrator has many incarnations. There are collections of stories, alternate narrators, interwoven first and third-person narratives, epistolary novels, story-cycles, and composite novels. I am particularly absorbed by stories in which the multiple narrators offer alternate versions of the same event. While I have an undying admiration for Kazuo Ishiguro’s ability to tell a story with a single, unreliable narrator, as in The Remains of the Day and Klara and the Sun, multiple narration can give the writer access to a wider context and world view that can be equally helpful in communicating with the reader.

The beauty of the novel is its myriad forms and re-invention. You do not have to be an advocate of experimental fiction, or a member of OULIPO, to appreciate original ways of storytelling and be entranced when you find them.

. . . .

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith

Waters has perfected the historical novel with a twist with Fingersmith, a novel that employs alternating narrators. With echoes of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Waters’ Victorian novel tells the story of Sue and Maud and the complex conspiracy that entwines them. Waters’ skill is in the visceral detail of the period that provides a background that, while evocative of the time, avoids pastiche.

Told in the first person, the alternating narrative is a satisfactory way of concealing and revealing information to the reader that is not available to the characters. Other alternating first person narrators include Wuthering Heights in which Emily Brontë uses two peripheral characters to tell the story of Heathcliff and Cathy, and An American Marriage, where Tayari Jones uses the device to examine the different feelings and experiences of the married couple Roy and Celestial.

Han Kang, The Vegetarian

Told in three parts by three different narrators, Han Kang’s slender and disturbing novel uses first and third person narrative voice to tell the story of Yeong-hye a South Korean woman in contemporary Seoul who decides to become a vegetarian. Her subsequent transformation is narrated by her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister who react with different levels of sympathy and understanding at Yeong-hye‘s deterioration. Interspersed with these interested parties, is the fragmentary voice of Yeong-hye and her dreams of blood and meat and slaughter, all connected to her guilt that she ever consumed animals.

The Vegetarian has a distinct three-part structure, and each part is a self-contained story. Other multiple-voiced narratives, such as Beatrice Hitchman’s All of You Every Single One, interweave the narrators to build more of a mosaic novel where the point of view may be wider, or inclusive of diverse perspectives such as David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Epistolary novels like Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple use the multiple narrator to great effect.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

A Mystery Writer’s Ode to Bookstore Romances

From CrimeReads:

Let’s face it, all readers have the same dream—to own a bookstore! Ah, the images it conjures. Spending our days with books, reveling in the aromas of paper and ink, tingling with anticipation when we think of the fictional worlds waiting for us inside the covers of books

. . . .

The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs

Natalie Harper inherits her mother’s financially strapped bookshop and also becomes the caretaker of her ailing grandfather. When Grandpa’s health declines, Natalie decides to sell the shop and the aging building that houses it. There’s only one problem: Grandpa owns the building and he refuses to sell. Enter Peach Gallagher, a contractor hired to handle repairs. So begins Natalie’s journey of making new connections and discovering the truth about her family, her future, and her own heart.

Bookshop by the Sea by Denise Hunter

The responsibilities of raising her siblings have meant that Sophie has had to put aside her dream of owning a bookstore in Piper’s Cove. Now, her sibs are all grown up, and Sophie’s going to make her bookshop dream come true. A wedding reunites Sophie with Aiden Maddox the high school sweetheart who walked out on her without a backward glance. Can she trust Aiden to stick around and help her get the shop up and running? And while she’s at it, can she trust him with her heart?

The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser

Thea Mottram’s husband walks out on her just when her uncle passes and she inherits his antique book collection. She travels to Scotland to check sell the books and comes to love the town of Baldochrie and its quirky residents. The only person she can’t win over Edward Maltravers, the bookstore owner she’d like to sell her uncle’s collection to. Somehow bickering with Edward proves oddly refreshing and exciting.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

White Line Fever

PG’s postings have been thin of late.

The principal reason is that he has been traveling with Mrs. PG and spending time with a variety of exceptionally cute offspring.

A bit earlier today, he and Mrs. PG returned to Casa PG and found nothing broken or missing.

Suffice to say, a motel and a laptop are not PG’s preferred surroundings and tools for posting riveting items on TPV.

During his recent travels, he has seen a significant number of truck drivers so these hard-working men (and a few women) have been on PG’s mind.

Not lots of lawyers, professors or college graduates in this group, but if they put in enough hours and miles into their job, they can earn a good blue-collar income. The price is a lot of isolation and loneliness for many of them, however, including many weeks away from family and friends.

Indie Presses Have to Partner Up

From Publishers Weekly:

Whether or not we want to face it, there is a startling new reality about small press publishing: we need help. The landscape is shifting and independent publishers are realizing that we need to find new ways to stay competitive. The Big Five publishers continue to buy independent presses, repackaging their lists to give an illusion of diversity when they are, in fact, conglomerates. It is time to rethink old business models, and parternship publishing is one way for new independent presses to emerge and be successful in this competitive climate.

So where does this leave authors? Traditional publishers have long tested hybrid contracts, from custom packaging projects to requiring restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, or museums to buy back a certain amount of books as part of publishing deals. Before signing contracts, authors should weigh their priorities. Some authors may need comprehensive direction from their publisher, while others may want to break out of a traditional mold and stay true to their own visions.

Independent presses offer authors an array of options to choose from, though some models are misunderstood. There’s an assumption, for instance, that a blended model throws away any quality control, but that just isn’t the case—particularly when it comes to partnership publishing.

I founded the Collective Book Studio with a distinct model in mind: authors choose us, but we must also choose them. We accept unagented and agented submissions, with each subjected to meticulous screening, but ultimately offer a wide pool of authors access to publishing expertise. By investing in their own products, clients maintain their agency while also acquiring the services that will make their book successful; thus, we establish a partnership. Authors hold on to their IP, they receive higher royalty rates, and they’re involved in many steps of the development, production, and marketing processes.

Like other partnership publishers, the Collective Book Studio handles editorial development, proofreading, layout, design, production, marketing, and publicity. We are backed by a team of experts. Many of us have worn different hats over the years. We form teams comprising booksellers, editors, illustrators, and designers because it gives us a wide perspective.

Why would an author choose partnership publishing over self-publishing? Self-publishing has an undeniable allure that stems from one major premise: jurisdiction. It seems to many that self-publishing grants the author the largest amount of control over important editorial, design, and marketing decisions. The self-publishing model is one that recognizes the author’s autonomy above all, but often that comes at the expense of quality control. Even if an author has a self-published book with compelling content, they likely won’t have competitive distribution.

At the Collective Book Studio we often hear from self-published authors who love their books but struggle with being shut out of most sales channels. Partnership publishing means spot gloss, foil, and embossing. It means an editor to ensure the highest-quality writing. It also creates a real path into the indie bookselling market, where handselling can make all the difference to a book’s success.

While the traditional vs. self vs. hybrid publishing debate rages on, independent booksellers are also working under enormous challenges. They’re up against Amazon, the dominant retailer that undermines pricing and shipping standards for everyone. The thing is, independent publishers are being swamped by monopolists, too. The best way for both indie publishers and indie bookstores to grow is by collaborating even more than we do now.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG is inclined to break down the OP as follows:

  1. Let’s pretend Amazon doesn’t exist. Ditto for Kindle Direct Publishing.
  2. Let’s pretend that when an author is asked to put up money by a traditional publisher, what’s going on is something more than a gussied-up vanity press operation.
  3. “We are backed by a team of experts.” Times are tough in the book business and a lot of people are willing to do whatever sort of gig work they can find.
  4. Let’s pretend that indie bookstores represent a significant part of the book-selling business.
  5. Let’s pretend that getting a book into a lot of indie bookstores will generate a lot of royalties for an author.
  6. Let’s pretend that authors who use vanity presses – plain vanilla or gussied-up – are really going to be taken seriously by anyone but their mother, father and retired third-grade teacher.
  7. “Partnership publishing means spot gloss, foil, and embossing.” PG couldn’t have worded the publisher’s contribution to the final product any better than that.

Finally, a quote attributed to a variety of different people, “Money flows to the author.” This does not mean that money flows from the author to the publisher.

Navigating Self Doubt

From Writer Unboxed:

Some of us run into it right from the beginning, when we first begin to put words to paper. Others are luckier and don’t encounter it until later on their journey. But either way, if you’re a writer, at some time or another you are bound to run into Self Doubt.

Self doubt hits all of us differently. It can be an uncomfortable itch between our shoulders or a paralyzing force that prevents us from getting any words down on the page. Whatever form it takes it can be, if not conquered, at least managed.

There are three distinct branches of the self-doubt tree.

Competence is about craft and skill. Do I have the writing chops to pull this story off?
Permission is about judgment and authenticity. Who do I think I am trying to tell THIS story?
Worthiness is about self worth, agency, and voice. Who do I think I am trying to tell ANY story?

Competence

Of all the causes of self doubt, competence is the most easily fixed. It’s about rolling up our sleeves, digging in, and committing the time and energy necessary to get better.

But of course, if merely proving our competency were all that was involved, no published writer would ever have self doubts and I am here to assure you that is most definitely NOT the case. Many published writers find their doubts grow stronger the further they move into their career. Their initial doubts are compounded by a sense of expectations they must meet, or new milestones or metrics they must achieve. Which brings us to head games and hard truths, essential tools in any writers’ backpack.

We’ll start with the hard truths first.

Our story will never be as sparkling and fabulous on the page as the idea of it in our heads. In the act of trying to capture it, in choosing specific actions and details, it loses some of the glorious sense of infinite potential, which is always a part of a new idea’s magic.

Knowing and accepting that helps us adjust our expectations. We won’t be writing a perfect book, but we very well might be writing a terrific book, and that’s good enough.

Another hard truth: Your journey to publication will likely take longer than you think. The industry average is 10 years. Knowing and accepting that helps us give ourselves the time and permission to improve our writing skills. With patience and persistence, all of us can improve and draw closer to mastery.

Now for the promised head game regarding competence:

When your goal is paralyzing you and filling you with debilitating self-doubt, change the goal.

Mind blowing, right? But the trick is to find a goal that feels like a challenge but doesn’t suffocate us. Instead of finishing a manuscript to find an agent or land a contract, shift the goal to finishing a manuscript. Or, finishing a manuscript that has an actual plot. Or middle. Or distinct internal and external character arcs.

Focus on nailing one or two things in this manuscript rather than having the entire forward trajectory of your career hinging on it. Try on different goals until you feel that tight knot of doubt inside you begin to ease up.

It is okay to attempt a story you can’t pull off. If you only ever train for a 5k, you will never be able to compete in a marathon. Most writers have practice manuscripts! But the thing about practice stories is, you can often do another revision. Or start over from scratch. Also? Practice stories CAN turn into break through or even break out books. (That is what happened with GRAVE MERCY.)

Be willing to produce a lot of material that won’t make the final cut. Writers don’t have so much as a block of marble or lump of clay or even paints with which to create. So recognize that your early drafts and story journaling are essentially creating the material, rather than writing the story you will be telling.

Revising is not polishing. Revising is taking the whole thing apart and putting it back together again in an entirely different way. Or starting all over again, from scratch. Be willing to do that if necessary. Over and over again.

Most of us have one or two areas that we seem to know instinctively and do well from the get go. Then there are a number of other elements that we must work at. And usually most of us have a couple of areas we are going to really struggle with. The goal is to see if you can identify which are which. But here’s an important tip—it is a better investment of your time to identify your strengths, shore those up, and play into them than it is to try and become achieve expertise in your areas of weakness.

I want to repeat that for emphasis: It is a better investment of your time to identify your strengths and play to them than it is to try and achieve mastery in every area of weakness.

If you’re an amazing plotter–lean in to that. If your characters breathe on the page, delve even deeper into them. If your use of language is so lyrical or clever or quirky that people would read your grocery list, play to that strength.

The goal should be to become competent enough in your weaknesses that they don’t detract from the overall reading experience. It is your strengths that will make your work stand out.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

AI audiobooks take a big step towards the audio New Normal

From The New Publishing Standard:

Pretty much since smartphones became mainstream, audio content in the form of podcasts and audiobooks have been gathering momentum as a significant format sector in the global publishing industry.

Even with the à la carte and monthly credit subscription models audio has taken off big time with consumers, while in the markets where publishers are amenable to unlimited subscription audiobooks have quickly become a format to rival – and in the case of Sweden even to exceed – the popularity of print.

But the brake on audio – and especially on longform audiobooks – has always been the production costs of studios, sound engineers and narrators that can add thousands of dollars to the cost of a book as a sound product, deterring many publishers and making some titles financially unviable.

Lurking in the background as the audio industry discovered and embraced digital, was AI – artificial intelligence – with the futuristic promise and premise that one day an entire book could be narrated by a robot and no-one would know any better.

Well, we’re not there yet, but anyone who follows developments in this arena will know quality is accelerating, driven by the proven global demand for digital audio based on text-to-speech (TTS).

As an author I love the idea that one day I might, at the click of a mouse, convert my novels to saleable-quality audiobooks, and as an industry commentator writing TNPS I fantasise about the day I might hit the mouse and my TNPS posts be converted into podcasts.

In the real world it seemed like the latter might happen soonest, as TTS (text to speech) seems to be developing fastest in the non-fiction arena, where delivery relies less on emotion and more purveying information.

But the reality is when I try the latest sample AI offerings I hit one major obstacle – TNPS posts are so full of “foreign” names (as in not in the AI English names database) that the text converted to sound is quite unacceptable. Another couple of years and it might be a different story.

But for fiction, where conveying emotion and tone has been the problem, progress has been palpable, this week resulting in news that one AI-audio operator, UK-based DeepZen, has partnered with US distributor Ingram to offer its AI-audio services to a no doubt cautiously optimistic publishing industry.

Per the DeepZen press release,

The service uses innovative technology that replicates the human voice to create a listening experience that is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Developed specifically for audiobooks and long form content, it incorporates artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and next generation algorithms.

DeepZen’s AI voices are licensed from voice actors and narrators, capturing all of the elements of the human voice, such as pacing and intonation, and a wide range of emotions that produce more realistic speech patterns. They are benchmarked against human narration, and are a world away from the robotic, monotone, voice assistants with which we are all familiar.

But that still begs the question, are they a world away enough to be acceptable to paying consumers?

The 49 second sample DeepZen offers via the press release really isn’t enough to make that call, but check it out here and see – or rather hear – for yourself.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Here’s a link to DeepZen where you can hear some AI voices

Inside the rise of influencer publishing

From The New Statesman (UK Edition):

“We live in a world where everyone is a brand,” said Laura McNeill, a literary agent at Gleam Titles, which was set up by Abigail Bergstrom in 2016 as the literary arm of the influencer management and marketing company Gleam. Many of the UK’s biggest selling books of the last few years, from feminist illustrator Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty to Instagram cleaning phenomenon Mrs Hinch’s Hinch Yourself Happy, have been developed at the agency, and then sold for huge sums to traditional publishing houses.

Celebrity autobiographies and commercial non-fiction have existed for a long time. Gleam Titles’ modus operandi is more specific: it has a focus on “writers who are using social media and the online space to share their content in a creative and effective way”. The term “author”, for the clients with which McNeill and her colleagues work, may be just one part of a multi-hyphen career that also includes “Instagrammer”, “podcaster” or “business founder”. These authors – whose books will become part of their brands – therefore require a different kind of management to traditional literary writers. “I do think the move to having talent agencies with in-house literary departments comes from these sorts of talents being a bit more demanding,” McNeill said. “I don’t want to come across as if those clients are difficult. But they are different.”

The biggest draw for publishers bidding for books by influencers is that they have committed audiences ready and waiting. Gleam understands the importance of these figures: on its website, it lists authors’ Instagram and Twitter followings beneath their biographies. When publisher Fenella Bates acquired the rights for Hinch Yourself Happy in December 2018, she noted Sophie Hinchcliffe’s impressively quick rise on Instagram, having grown her following from 1,000 to 1.4 million in just six months. Upon publication in April 2019, the book sold 160,302 copies in three days, becoming the second fastest-selling non-fiction title in the UK (after the “slimming” recipe book Pinch of Nom).

Anyone who has harnessed such an audience to sell products, promote a campaign, or otherwise cultivate a successful personal brand is an exceptionally desirable candidate to a publisher that wants to sell books. What’s more, the mechanics of social media means the size of these audiences is easily measurable, making the authors “cast-iron propositions” for publishers, said Caroline Sanderson, the associate editor of the trade magazine the Bookseller, who has noticed a huge increase in the number of books written by social media stars over the last couple of years. 

A spokesperson for Octopus Books, which published Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty in June 2020, suggested that a book deal can raise an influencer’s profile too. When the book was acquired, Given had approximately 100,000 followers on Instagram. “Her book was acquired because she was an exceptional writer, not because she was an influencer,” they said. “By the time it was announced, she had 150,000 followers and when the book was published her audience had jumped to circa 350,000 followers. As the book and its message grew, so did her audience.” Women Don’t Owe You Pretty has spent 26 weeks in the Sunday Times bestseller charts according to data from Nielsen BookScan, and, as of August 2021, has sold over 200,000 copies.

Link to the rest at The New Statesman (UK Edition)

PG reminds one and all that, unlike plebeian self-publishers, traditional publishers are curators of culture.

Who doesn’t read books in America?

From The Pew Research Center:

Roughly a quarter of American adults (23%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted Jan. 25-Feb. 8, 2021. Who are these non-book readers?

Several demographic traits are linked with not reading books, according to the survey. For instance, adults with a high school diploma or less are far more likely than those with a bachelor’s or advanced degree to report not reading books in any format in the past year (39% vs. 11%). Adults with lower levels of educational attainment are also among the least likely to own smartphones, an increasingly common way for adults to read e-books.

In addition, adults whose annual household income is less than $30,000 are more likely than those living in households earning $75,000 or more a year to be non-book readers (31% vs. 15%). Hispanic adults (38%) are more likely than Black (25%) or White adults (20%) to report not having read a book in the past 12 months. (The survey included Asian Americans but did not have sufficient sample size to do statistical analysis of this group.)

Although the differences are less pronounced, non-book readers also vary by age and community type. Americans ages 50 and older, for example, are more likely than their younger counterparts to be non-book readers. There is not a statistically significant difference by gender.

The share of Americans who report not reading any books in the past 12 months has fluctuated over the years the Center has studied it. The 23% of adults who currently say they have not read any books in the past year is identical to the share who said this in 2014.

Link to the rest at The Pew Research Center

US Senate Finance Committee Presses Publishers on Library Ebook Contracts

From Book Riot:

Earlier this year, Fight for the Future — a group of technology experts, policymakers, and creatives — launched a tool called Who Can Get Your Book, meant to highlight the challenges of accessibility and availability of ebooks in public schools and libraries, rural areas, and other communities where these disparities create burdens to information. It is but one organization seeking transparency around ebooks from publishers, and now, the US Senate Finance Committee is pushing for more.

Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D., Oregon) and U.S. Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D., California) lead the latest charge, drafting a series of letters to the Big Five publishers to clarify their ebook contracts with public schools.

Ebook contracts are notoriously tricky. For libraries, who can purchase print books and own them through their natural lifespan, ebooks come with restrictions on a number of fronts. They aren’t owned by the library and instead are licensed: at any time, the books may disappear or come with circulation limits, and those licenses come at astronomical prices. In cases where licenses can be negotiated with better terms for the library, costs only grow.

These contracts and the ways they restrict access for users have become magnified over the course of the pandemic, when the digital divide became even more profound.

As reported in December, one school district in southern California found itself budgeting $27 per student every 12 months to access the classic and widely-taught The Diary of Anne Frank. The same title can be purchased in print by a library for a one-time price and used without limit; outside of the library, the average person can purchase The Diary of Anne Frank on Kindle one time from anywhere from $.20 to $14 and read it as much as desired for that single cost.

That doesn’t mean non-library purchases of ebooks are perpetual, nor are they owned by the individual who made the purchase.

“Even readers with vast personal collections of e- and audio-books should be alarmed, as most ebooks and audiobooks are also merely licensed to those who believe they are “buying” them, leaving the door open for publishers and big tech companies like Amazon to later erase books, as well as alter what they say, down the line,” said Lia Holland campaigns and Communications Director at Fight for the Future.

Beyond the costs, not all digital material is made available for licensing by schools or libraries. Amazon exclusives, for example, keep many works completely inaccessible. Who Can Get Your Book gives points for every accessible format to a title, and uses those to grade how easy it is to borrow it. Born a Crime, the popular memoir by Trevor Noah, for example, earns a D grade because the digital audiobook isn’t available outside its exclusive deal with Audible and because of restrictive licensing agreements for the ebook.

All of these challenges have led to demand for change.

“E-books play a critical role in ensuring that libraries can fulfill their mission of providing broad and equitable access to information for all Americans, and it is imperative that libraries can continue their traditional lending functions as technology advances,” reads the letter Senate Finance Committee members sent to Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan.

. . . .

“We are thrilled to see legislators taking action for the public’s right to own and preserve all books, no matter what form they are published in. With so much of our lives happening online, the opportunity to own digital books is almost nonexistent—a stark and concerning departure from how our society interacts with paper books,” said Holland.

“Through restrictive and expensive licensing schemes on ebooks and audiobooks, publishers are acting against the best interest of authors by reducing the number of titles that libraries and schools are allowed to offer and preserve. This often means that the most successful and mainstream books are the only ones purchased, locking many authors out of income from library purchases as well as away from the vast audiences of readers that public institutions serve. We hope that legislators will take swift action to ensure perpetual access to knowledge and diverse voices for everyone.”

Earlier this summer, Maryland became the first state to pass legislation on ebook licensing. The bill, which goes into effect January 1, 2022, requires any publisher offering ebooks for sale to consumers in the state also make those materials available for purchase by libraries in the state.

In other words, exclusives would no longer be allowed to be exclusive or put undue access barriers to library materials in the state. Publishers Weekly breaks down this legislation, making it sound like Amazon remains a question mark.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

Yes, of course traditional publishers would screw up library licensing of ebooks just like they screwed up everything else with their ebook businesses.