Monday, November 30, 2009

The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Book Bloggers

Following my last blog, The Cultural Divide, where I faulted the weekly book coverage at The New York Times for lacking balance, I had some spirited email exchanges with Jon Landman, the editor of the Culture Desk, as well as with Katherine Bouton who assigns books for review and Motoko Rich who reports on the New York publishing world. They all talked about how they are very aware of trying to keep a balance between literary culture and popular culture, and between the dozen or so giant corporate publishers who dominate the market place and smaller independent presses that are largely ignored. As an example I pointed out that we’ve not had a review for one of our novels from them since the first one appeared in January, 1980, despite a plethora of awards and honors, listed in my July 13th blog, What Pisses Me Off. That was 7,000 reviews ago.

In our email exchanges my impression was that that they were pretty well satisfied with the job they are doing. Katherine Bouton mentioned, as an example of small press coverage, that they did a review of a Minotaur book recently, apparently not realizing that Minotaur is an imprint of one of the giants: Macmillan. Jon Landman wrote that they had given us coverage, citing an article about Judy and me and the Permanent Press which appeared 15 years ago, neglecting the fact that this was not a review for one of our books and that it appeared in the Metropolitan Section, which at that time was circulated only in New York City and Long Island. Motoko Rich suggested that she'd be glad to consider a news story, but couldn't guarantee she would do anything because there were so many suggestions she received. Having read her news stories, and finding many of them read like elaborations on press releases written by publicity directors at the major publishing houses, I greeted her offer with skepticism. Instead I told her that I posted a monthly blog where she might find things in it newsworthy, and mentioned that I'd be writing about a book blogger this month whose novel we would be publishing.

I can understand these responses on three levels: one being that it is hard to take criticism, and defensiveness frequently follows. The other being an attempt to "make nice" that lacked sincerity but might get someone off your back. And, finally, realizing that nobody likes being told by those outside the club how they should run their business. My initial response to outsiders taking me to task about our work would likely be similar. Still, it’s possible that starting a dialogue plants seeds that could, ultimately, take root.

On November 2, Susan Dominus wrote a column in the Times entitled “Lament on the Fading Culture of the Printed Word,” in which she talked about the changes in the literary world over the past couple of years—the loss of jobs, the inability of aspiring writers to find publishers, and what the future holds. “I went back and reread Joan Didion's essay “Goodbye to All That” the other day…a catalog of Manhattan’s enervating clichés, and, implicitly, a rejection of the New York literary scene she inhabited… Ms. Didion tired of the same faces at the same parties, the gossip about book advances, the uneasy courtship of press and publicists, the endless cycle of aspiration and pretense. [It’s] been reverberating through my mind on a regular basis. I hear it every time I go to a party and run into a writer or editor I admire who has recently been laid off. 12 or 20 years ago if anyone with a flair for stringing sentences together lost a job, it was a given that he would land quickly on his feet at another publication or a small publishing house. But now, goodbye to all that.

“Newspapers, including this one, are shedding jobs, too, but it is the world of magazines and publishing houses that constitutes a culture specific to New York. Part of what is gone, perhaps appropriately, is the glittering, gluttonous self-indulgence — content that took itself too seriously, or associate market editors who did the same, a bad case of the press believing its own press. But what is lost, along with a lot of image packaging, is that expansive home for good writing. Philip Roth recently predicted in The Guardian of London, that in 25 years, the number of people reading novels would be akin to the numbers now reading Latin poetry; it will be a curiosity, certainly not a profit center. This is painful gospel for anyone who reads Philip Roth, or other great writers, the way other people read religious texts — to make sense of the world, to be humbled or inspired by the power of language.”

Were this article in the Arts and Culture section of the Times, it might have caused some reflection on how they covered books. But Susan Dominus’ columns appear in the Metropolitan Section, to be read only in New York City and environs.

On Friday, November 27, the entire front page of the Arts section was devoted to books; the headline article penned by Janet Maslin, a “Holiday Gift Guide,” was entitled “Unforgettable Books For Those You Remember.” She started out by saying “There’s a good reason why the three daily book critics for The New York Times don’t make 10-best lists at the end of the year. None of us has read everything [italics mine]. None of us has an objective overview of the year’s best and most important books, but this is what we do have: favorites…books we have not only admired in the abstract but have also enjoyed, recommended, and given to friends. Of the tens of thousands of books published each year, the daily Times reviews about 250. Each of us chose his or her share of those titles for review. Now Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner and I further narrow down those choices and each of us can tell you which books we’ll remember best.” She also adds, before getting to these 30 favorites, that “It’s been a bit of an off year, and the must-read milestones have been rare…And if it’s been a disappointing year for certain major novelists, it has also brought a couple of unexpected career-capping accomplishments from fiction writers in the mainstream [italics mine].”

Obviously they can’t “read everything,” but do these three doyens ever choose to read a novel from a small press—or are they limited to those released by the biggest players? Do they assume that only the biggest corporations publish writers worthy of coverage? Might they consider the conglomerates as major leaguers and the independents as farm teams?
The IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) has over 3,000 members. Are any of them considered “mainstream?” Or are only the dozen or so conglomerates considered mainstream? When one examines where these 30 favorite imprints come from, lo and behold, they are all produced by eight conglomerate publishing houses; there is not a single small, independent press among them.

Listed below are the eight corporate giants that these “favorites” of Janet Maslin, Michiko Kakutani and Dwight Garner came from:
Random House published 10 favorites from among these imprints: four from Knopf, and one each from Ballantine, Crown, Dial, Doubleday, Pantheon, and Vintage.
Hachette had five: four from Little Brown and one from their Twelve imprints.
Macmillan had five: three from their Farrar Straus & Giroux imprint and one each from St. Martin’s Press and Metropolitan Books imprints.
Penguin had five, three from Penguin and two from Viking.
Simon & Schuster had two, both from their Scribner imprint
Harper Collins had one from their Harper imprint.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had one under their own imprint
Perseus had one, from their Basic Books imprint.

Does one need more substantiation of the charges that small publishers are at a major disadvantage and are playing on an uneven field? And what is true at the Times is also true at nearly all other mainstream newspapers and magazines.

I think it’s time for readers who desire broader coverage and want a larger window to choose from, before deciding what books to read, to consider three things:

1. Subscribe to Publishers Weekly, a trade journal, but one which will appeal to any serious reader for it offers over 7,000 short, thoughtful reviews of books yearly in all major categories—along with publishing news, trends, articles, profiles, and interviews with authors and others in the business. There is no other publication in America of greater importance in this industry or to those who love books. Nor is there any discriminatory coverage between conglomerate and small independent presses. This lively, informative publication is also very affordable; it costs less than the Sunday edition of The New York Times. Dan Brown, Ed Doctorow, or books about Obama or Sarah Palin get no more review space than will a first novel by an unknown author from a relatively unknown press. It’s what librarians and bookstores read before placing orders for books. 51 copies of Publishers Weekly can cost anywhere from $3.29 to $4.32/copy by subscription. The Sunday Times costs $5, which includes their Book Review section, which last Sunday reviewed five novels and ten books of non-fiction, while Publishers Weekly reviewed 83 books in all: 50 novels (28 straight fiction, 9 mysteries, 6 sci-fi reviews, 4 mass market reviews, and 4 comics (previously known as graphic novels), 31 non-fiction titles, and 19 children’s book (12 of them picture books): 100 reviews in all. You can order from (click on magazine subscriptions) or from which offers subscriptions to the magazine itself or their online edition alone. I would add that if it were not for the thoughtful book people at PW, we would never have survived for 31 years. And I am sure that many other independent presses would say the same thing. So this is a publication well worth reading, enjoying, and supporting.

2. Write to the New York Times, and give your feedback to Jon Landman ( and Katherine Bouton ( and let them know what you think you might want to see there. Jon did say in one of his emails that he was open to suggestions. One proposal I would make to him and Katherine Bouton would be to have a fourth reviewer added to the gang of three, a reviewer who has covered small presses and has the background to introduce a new and broader perspective. And my candidate would be Marc Schuster. His site is

Marc is a 36 year old who earned his PhD in English from Temple University. His dissertation was on 20th Century American fiction. Since fall, 2005, he’s been on the faculty of Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, where he teaches College Composition, American Literature and Creative Writing. He’s reviewed about 100 books on his site since November, 2007. It’s a lot of work, reading and reviewing nearly a book a week while teaching full-time, writing his own stories, helping out at Philadelphia Stories, volunteering at Writers Conferences at his school and Rosemont College (also outside Philadelphia) where he recently interviewed Maxine Hong Kingston. Small Press Reviews is obviously a project motivated by passion, not income. Propelled by curiosity, I asked him how and why he started his book blog.

“I had a number of friends whose writing I respected and who were published by small presses—as well as admiring books from small presses that I bought at bookstores. All had trouble finding anyone to review their work. And so I decided to do something about it. For a long time now I’ve thought that the most interesting writing is coming from small presses, as they are not as concerned about the bottom line as they are about literary aesthetics. They accept books based on loving them. At a big press it’s because they think it can make money.” What started small, with Marc’s buying books to review, has caught on so well that he’s getting over 400 hits a month and is, at times, overwhelmed by the number of submissions he receives from small publishers.

3. Read good Blogs, for that’s where the action is. I’ve mentioned many of them before and will do a future listing on my next posting. The increased coverage one can get from these bloggers more than compensates for the decreasing space available from newspaper and magazine book reviews. In some ways I think newspaper reviews are in danger of becoming a dinosaur given the way they limit themselves to books written about celebrities or by celebrity authors, while avoiding the excitement and discovery of talented newcomers. As Rania Haditirto, our only full time employee who does so many things so well for us, puts it “GoodReads, LibraryThing, and independent bloggers have revolutionized the way in which books are talked about. Most people buy books because a friend talks passionately about something they’ve read, and these sites provide new friends who recommend books to one another. It’s like an on-line ongoing Book Club.”

Reading a good blog is how I met Marc Schuster. Charles Holdefer, a novelist we published, was a guest speaker at a Writers Conference at Rosemont in 2008. Charles had recently written "The Contractor." Marc had read and loved his novel, reviewed it, and was squiring him about. Afterwards he bought a couple of other Permanent Press books and enjoyed and wrote about them as well. I was always much impressed with his reviews; he had a knack for finding threads that escaped me and Judy, my wife and co-publisher, but were artfully observed. Since one of the joys of publishing is making contact with people who share your aesthetics and write beautifully—and since I noticed that on his website he listed a novel he wrote, "The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl"—I wrote to him saying that since he’d read so many of our books, I thought it only fair that I read his. It arrived shortly afterwards, was published as a paperback by PS Books—a regional publisher and a division of Philadelphia Stories. Judy and I were impressed. It was both funny and dark, a tale for our times with unforgettable characters, narrated by a young super-Mom who, after her husband leaves her for a younger version, is introduced to cocaine and slides into addiction while her mothering goes haywire. What was also interesting is that it hadn’t been reviewed anywhere. We also thought it needed editing and I wrote back saying that if this book were available and if he wanted to do rewrites and some reorganization, we’d be interested in publishing it. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and two weeks later returned a masterfully reworked manuscript. While we’ve signed it up for mid 2011, we’ve already ordered bound galleys, a year and a half before publication date, as we want editors, agents, scouts, and film producers to see it well in advance of publication.

So hail to the book bloggers who have played a significant role in spreading the word about the novels we’ve published this year, which has resulted in a 66% increase in book sales over those in 2008…with still over a month to go. And to Publishers Weekly, who have always treated us so well.


P.S. If this blog proves of interest to you, I hope you will pass it on to others and also subscribe with Notifixious in order to be informed when next month's post comes out.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Cultural Divide

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary has two distinct definitions of culture; the first being “acquaintance with and taste in fine arts; developing intellectual and moral facilities; enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training.” For my purposes, lets call this “Culture” with a capital “C.” The second has to do with “the customary beliefs, social forms of a racial or social group; the characteristics of features of everyday experiences.” Let me write about this “culture” using a lower case “c” for sake of argument in talking about this cultural divide

The International Divide:

After our first Frankfurt Book Fair nearly three decades ago, Judy and I looked at one another and asked “Does the world need another book?” This year there were 7,300 exhibitors from around the world, scattered throughout 10 three story exhibition halls, with 500,000 visitors reported. It was a good fair for us, with unexpected visits from German, Russian, Italian, French, Canadian, Turkish and UK editors who wanted to see some of the nearly two dozen novels we brought to the fair and they had heard about. It buoyed us, this cultural divide, reaffirming that there is keen interest in well written novels abroad, whereas editors at the major domestic publishers have, over the last three years or so, shown little or no interest in either reading or acquiring reprint rights for quality fiction.

The Domestic Divide:

Returning from Frankfurt we had dinner at the home of Warren and Barbara Phillips on October 23, who started Bridgeworks. The other guests were Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press and his wife, Genie, and the publishers of Oceanview Press—Bob and Pat Gussin—who started their imprint in 2006 and are now doing 12 thrillers a year. Four small publishers, talking books, and wondering about the shifting obligations and standards among mainstream reviewers and columnists, as they inexorably drifted away from “Culture” to “culture.” Bill thought that it had to do with the increasing cult of celebrity in America, aided and abetted by the print media, pandering to what they assumed the public was interested in reading about.

We were discussing The New York Times Book Review of October 11, where only three novels were reviewed. There was a front page (in all a two page) review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which was artfully eviscerated by Maureen Dowd. That was followed by a full page review of The Suicide Run by William Styron, a masterful writer who died three years ago, but remains a superstar even if this collection of five previously published stories about Marine Corps warriors were originally written years ago. The final novel, The Children’s Book, featured another full page review by another superstar novelist, A.S. Bryant, concluding that “the novel’s encyclopedic ambition slows even the most absorbing story line to a stutter.”

Yet, with all their financial pressures and shrinking space, The Times Book Review still remains somewhat open to smaller books and other issues do better, balance wise, between fiction and non-fiction. This is not at all the case in the Arts section of the weekday Times, where Jon Landman, the editor of the Culture Desk, is in charge. And so on October 28, I sent this email to Jon.

“As co-publisher, for the last 31 years, of one of the most respected literary presses in America, I wanted to share some observations about how differently your coverage of books varies from coverage of all the other forms of entertainment in the Arts section.

“In writing about or reviewing dance, theater, films, or music there is a fair amount of space devoted to off and off-off Broadway plays and small out-of-town theater, as well as showcasing new playwrights. Similarly, aside from big productions from major studios or films with star-power actors or directors, there are plenty of small independent films that are also showcased. The same is true of music and dance. And yet, the reporting about books does not follow that model at all, but is largely restricted to books written by celebrity authors or focused on sales figures reported by the large corporate publishers. In my last blog posting on September 29, Conventions, I raised these issues across the board—including the fact that the daily Times book review section will not, according to Katherine Bouton, consider first novels, as these authors ‘have not yet proven themselves.’ Among the comments I received from this posting was one from one of the best online critics I've encountered, Marc Schuster at Small Press Reviews:

"I enjoyed your recent blog post on book conventions, particularly the reference to ‘name brand’ authors. As you can imagine, I've long been of the opinion that the mainstream book market, such as it is, has a tendency to reduce authors to commodities and, in general, flatten the entire canon of popular literature into a dull smear of sameness. Which explains why, frequently, the only thing mainstream media outlets can discuss in relation to books is number of units sold (or something equally tangential to books themselves). As a result, we get stories about how Harry Potter and Twilight sold however many millions of copies in much the same way McDonald's boasts ‘Billions and billions served.’ In the final analysis, it's all hamburger.

“His comments were underscored in Motoko Rich's column on October 8, entitled Booksales Are Down Despite Push, which was all about sales and returns of celebrity authors and their books, from Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, to Ted Kennedy’s True Compass, and how book sales were down about 4 percent compared with the same weeks last year, suggesting that neither of these titles nor any of the other big fall books from heavyweights like Mitch Albion, Pat Conroy, E.L. Doctorow and Audrey Niffenegger were helping booksellers to overcome the sludgy economy. Motoko then went on to quote comments about sales figures from Ellen Archer of Hyperion, Suzanne Herz at Knopf Doubleday, buyers at Borders, Powells, and others with the focus, as always, on sales. Frankly, I think most of her articles on the book business belong in the business section, not the culture section of the Times. But, as Marc Schuster says, hamburger is hamburger. ‘How many thousands have we sold today?’

“Even when it comes to constantly decreasing sales figures among the dozen or so conglomerate publishers, there seems to be no awareness that there are things going on culturally among smaller presses—a fact I mentioned in an email to Motoko that was never answered—since our sales last year were 23% higher than those in 2007, and this year we are running 45% higher sales with two months still to go. I realize our sales are in the hundreds of thousands, whereas Random House's are in the multi-millions, but when you restrict yourself to a dozen artfully written novels of ‘Cultural’ interest, I do know there is significance here.”

I asked Jon if he’d care to comment before this blog was released. I was told by his assistant, Andrea Stevens, that he’s just back from traveling, and may not be able to respond in time. In which he can always post a comment or get back to me by email. which I’d surely feature in next month’s blog. Or, like emails I’ve sent to others at the Culture desk of the Times, he might not get back to me at all.

Sometimes I feel like I'm morphing into the Michael Moore of the book publishing world when it comes to raising issues of the sort I've been blogging about. The Michael Moore identification comes about because when I'd query Katherine Bouton to make sure she meant it (about not covering first novels) there was no response. And when I emailed Motoko after her October 8 column I accidentally hit the send button before I included the text (similar to what I just sent to Jon Landman). She immediately wrote back letting me know there was no copy to respond to. But after apologizing and sending her the text, I was ignored. Isn't it funny? When you say nothing you get an answer, but when you say something serious you are ignored. It's doubly odd since our executive editor, Rania Haditirto, pointed out that in Motoko's column she quoted "Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, a chain of independent stores in South Florida and the Cayman Islands, who said the biggest successes were often books from unknown authors that built slowly by word of mouth." Ironic, since these are exactly the same books that are largely ignored in the Arts section. Well, Michael Moore has made many telling points in his films when he’s asked questions of officials at Guantanamo, or Health Care providers, of bank executives and is ignored. And, as Michael said at the end of his latest film, Capitalism, I'm not going away and am determined to keep raising questions of this sort.

Thus, it is a great comfort to know that the December issue of The Independent (the publication of the IBPA—the Independent Book Publishers Association)—will feature a column edited by Judy Applebaum that combines aspects of my last two blogs which should serve to enlarge this dialogue, for The Independent will be mailed to 3,500 IBPA members across the country (plus a few overseas) and also to wholesalers, retailers, librarians, media people and others interested in the book business. This will certainly expand the discussion of these issues.

A Last Minute Validation:

For those skeptics who doubt the claims I’ve made about the success to be had by doing fiction in the service of “Culture” as opposed to “culture,” I pass on this email, just received as I post this blog, from Suzie Tourscher at the Merchandising Department of Baker and Taylor, concerning the first three quarters of 2009:

“Hi Marty. I wanted to pass on your 2009 third quarter sales report as I realized that I hadn’t given you one of these reports in a while. So far you are up by 71% for the year, which is unheard of in this economy. You are experiencing the biggest growth in the Public Library market and Retail Internet markets; your sales are up by 82% and 36% respectively in those areas.” Also passed on was the fact that our returns rate over the past three years has been in the mid-teens…an exceptionally low rate among book publishers.

Coming Up Next Time:

I hoped to tell the story of how, after sending out countless copies of books to bloggers, we acquired a gem of a novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl written by a blogger, the aforementioned Marc Schuster. But rather than take up more of your time with this, let me start next month’s blog with this exceptional tale.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009


On October 12th Judy and I head for Frankfurt and the Book Fair which runs from the 13th to the 18th. After giving up on the London Book Fair in the mid-90s and America’s Book Expo ten years ago, Frankfurt still remains vital. It affords us a chance to meet with all our overseas agents, several of our overseas publishing partners, and always seems to provide serendipitous encounters with foreign editors that often lead to translation sales.

We abandoned the London Fair for a variety of reasons. For one, if we could see the same people in Frankfurt in the fall, why bother attending London in the spring? And then there was the problem of the paucity of traffic. We’d spend days with only one or two visitors, and it seemed that those who attended were all chasing the “big book,” as opposed to seeking out good “little books,” which is what we offer. As for Book Expo, previously known as the American Booksellers Convention, it had deteriorated over the years. Once a convention that drew attendees from film people, book buyers and newspaper reviewers, it had morphed into a late spring playground for people who worked at bookstores and wanted to take their family on a domestic, tax-deductible vacation. These attendees traveled up and down the aisles with giant handbags or even carts, grabbing posters and free books, or stood in line for signings by name brand authors of their latest releases. It had become, in fact, a promotional event for the large corporate publishers, getting newspaper coverage for the big and famous, while the rest of the exhibitors simply served as background—fodder to fill up the stands.

All this frivolity, other than providing necessary income from exhibitor rentals and attendees at the American Booksellers Association (which, representing the independent bookstores of America, I have great respect for) led to an increasing decline in attendance among more serious book people, something the ABA tried to reverse by changing the venue: New York one year, Las Vegas, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Anaheim—conveniently close to Disneyland. At one time they had settled on Chicago, a lovely city and central between the coasts, but found that attendance kept slipping. Booksellers just couldn’t bring themselves to vacation in the same place year after year. Still, attendance continued its downward slide even as exhibition space grew, limiting sites to only the larger cities. I remember back in 1998, when we went to the Javitz Center in New York for the first time as visitors to collect the 1997 RR Bowker/Literary Market Place Award for Editorial Excellence (the book industry’s “Oscar” at the time, voted on, electronically, by all those in the publishing world), that the number of attendees was almost identical to the number of people manning the exhibitors stands. Walking around the halls after Judy and I received this honor was a sad experience: akin to holding a sale at Saks Fifth Avenue sale during a hurricane, with hardly anyone else wandering the halls. Yet, there was also a feeling of joyous liberation knowing that after 20 years of exhibiting we could catch a Jitney back to the Hamptons and get back to work—and not be trapped in the Convention Center for another couple of days. It was clear that it was time to move on.

Given the current free-fall in the book industry, even large corporate publishers have been trimming staff—and even attendance—at Book Expo because they, too, see it as increasingly unnecessary: that the promotional value does not measure up to the expenses of money and time, as print media declines and so many of the newspapers still standing have trimmed book coverage substantially. How, then does one let the reading public know about your books?

If book conventions no longer supplied sufficient publicity, and if your primary goal is to sell books, you go to another tried and true “convention”: working even harder to select books written by public figures that can easily generate television and radio appearances, and also make news. Steve Rubin, former executive v-p and publisher at large for Random House worked this avenue by riding the success of decent writers with large followings, such as John Grisham and Dan Brown, as well as publishing Bill O’Reilly and “contributed to shaping Random’s global strategy and helped land several promising projects, including the book to be written by former President George W. Bush,” according to the September 24th daily online issue of Publishers Weekly, which also announced that Rubin was “leaving the company” after 25 years. A good idea, one would think. But then again, on August 31, PW had earlier reported that Random House profits were down for the first half of 2009, according to results issued that morning by parent company Bertelsmann. Profits fell 35.5%. So, perhaps Bill O’Reilly and George Bush were not the answers.

Or take the famed editor Judith Regan, whose imprint at Harper Collins managed to take on Toni Bentley’s The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir. A former Balanchine dancer, her memoir was named one of the “100 Best Books of 2004” by The New York Times Book Review, which extolled it as expressing “the joys, both physical and spiritual, of anal sex.” I’d read several book reviews Bentley wrote in the Times which I thought were quite masterful, but despite her bold willingness to write about her anal obsessions, I found the book lacked passion and was about as erotic as taking a cold bath. It reminded me of an article the great social critic Paul Krassner wrote in The Realist when he mocked a Supreme Court decision concerning pornography. His take was that the designation of pornography was dependent on whether or not the judge got an erection while reading. While The Surrender promised titillation, and coverage, it would never have been called pornographic if I were a Supreme Court judge. In 2006, Judith Regan was fired by her parent company, Harper Collins (and her Regan Books imprint shut down three months later) after she signed up another “newsworthy,” promotable book by O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, a hypothetical telling of how he would have committed the killings of his ex-wife and Mr. Goldman. Angry protests caused the book’s cancellation. Interestingly enough, Publishers Weekly reported on April 6 that Harper Collins also ended a difficult year on a down note, posting an operating loss of $4 million on a 20.6% decline in revenue in the fourth quarter ended June 30.

Since our interests are in publicizing fiction that has merit, these conventional strategies—whether they work or, as above, sometimes fail, are decidedly unappealing. My faith lies with internet reviewing by people who value substance over flash, who appreciate good writing and write well themselves. Did any of you notice that September 14th -18th was Book Blogger Appreciation Week? In recent past blogs I’ve referred to some of the extraordinary bloggers we’ve come in contact with this past year, and what an eye-opener it has been. More than that, its provided a high that I can only compare to the high I’ve gotten when jamming with other musicians when you are in sync and the music connects you in the most intimate way. It goes beyond words and becomes a spiritual thing, sending a message from your heart and having it returned by another.

Over our past three decades, our relationship with most newspaper or magazine book reviewers was largely one way. The publisher was a supplicant and the reviewer royalty who might grant a favor. Print media was overwhelmingly in favor of the well-known writers and the promotional efforts of conglomerate publishers and publicists who could curry that favor much more effectively that we could. In response to my August blog, Criticism versus Narcissism, there were numerous posted comments from book bloggers, many to the effect that few of them will cover a book they dislike; that there is so much stuff out there, why bother with negative reviews. There were also two email responses from critics who did not want to be identified, for fear of offending, but have allowed me to share these comments anonymously. The first comes from a person who is involved with a daily online book site, who says: “What I want to know is, why does The New York Times over-cover so many authors? I've seen, for one author, a review in the daily, a review in the Sunday section, AND a profile in the Lifestyles section. I realize that these are different departments, but you'd think that—ethically? morally?—in light of shrinking space for book news, that they'd stop doubling or tripling up. If reviewers/columnists are interested in devoting as much space as possible to talk about books, wouldn't it make sense to spread the largesse, so to speak, around?”

The other comes from a print and radio critic who had just finished reading Michiko Kakutani’s review of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Homer & Langley, about the Collyer Brothers (“A B-plus novel reviewed by a B-minus reviewer”), with both parties being literary “Superstars,” deservedly or not. “Kakutani’s review violated a basic rule of reviewing. It was a summary of the plot with no assessment of whether she liked it or not and for what reasons. But then, of course, Kakutani is reviewing all of Philip Roth’s novels, which she shouldn’t be doing because she hates him. It’s another violation. One would think that if you detest what this writer has to say, why would you not recuse yourself?” But this, of course, is one of the perks of superstardom. Nor did this critic find favor with another article on Doctorow’s book in another section of the Times, “which was an essay, really, by the writer, who called attention to Doctorow’s book to basically make his own essayist points. That’s not what I consider a proper review either.” Incidentally, in the September 7 issue of The New Yorker Joyce Carole Oates called Homer & Langley “a subdued, contemplative, and resolutely unsensational recounting of the brothers’ fatally intertwined lives,” her abbreviated online review ending with “Doctorow has evoked an American folk-myth writ small.”)

Fortunately, for those interested in calling attention to creative writing by gifted but unknown novelists, bloggers don’t follow these superstar conventions. That’s why I passionately share the sentiments of those who started Book Bloggers Appreciation Week two years ago.

Final Words:

Two glorious blog reviews of Maud Carol Markson’s Looking After Pigeon appeared in mid September: Danielle Bullen’s was on Mostly and can be read in its entirely on when you click on the novel’s title. And Anne Hite's can be seen on the Internet Review of Books.

I also want to salute two mystery alumni who are finalists for this year’s Shamus Award, for Best Hardcover, the winner to be chosen at the Bouchercon convention on October 16. They are Reed Farrel Coleman’s Empty Ever After and Domenic Stansberry’s The Ancient Rain. We have four of Reed’s mysteries in our backlist and three of Domenic’s, and wish them both much success.

Lastly, we’ve had two very solid advance reviews for our Middle East novels: Mehrdad Balali’s Houri, which comes out in December and is set in Iran (“Journalist Balali’s bitter first novel about Iran, from which he is now banned, contrasts his native country before and after the Islamic revolution. Comparisons to The Kite Runner are unavoidable.”—Kirkus) and Anastasia Hobbet’s Small Kingdoms which appears in January (“Hobbet's extensive knowledge of Kuwait's people, customs and political landscape combine to make an immersive, authentic, compelling novel about Middle East life”—Publishers Weekly). Both are “must reads” for anyone desiring to understand these very different Muslim countries, for they tell you more about how people live, and the conflicts in their societies, than non-fiction reporting.

I also must add that Louise Young’s Seducing the Spirits (due in November) was featured on page one—the contents page, of Publishers Weekly on September 7, with a half page spread—as their Book of the Week. It’s the first time this has happened with one of our authors. Here's a briefest summary: "Young has turned decades working with the indigenous Kuna people of Panama into a compassionate, passion-filled novel. Enthralling, entertaining, exotic."


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Criticism versus Narcissism

In July’s blog, “What Pisses me Off,” I talked about my disappointment with certain aspects of in-print book reviews. Much of it had to do with critics devoting time to trashing titles from writers while review space is shrinking. Since that posting I’ve received over a dozen comments—some on the blog, others by email—which addressed these same issues.

Christopher Brookhouse, whose first novel, Running Out, received the prestigious Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1971—and which Lawrence Sinclair (, listed as one of his top 125 choices from the more than 1,000 books he’s read, placing Running Out at #124, sandwiched between Rabbit, Run by John Updike at 123, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace at 125. Anthony Burgess called it “A triumph of poetic economy and a powerful evocation of place.” We’ve published three of Chris’s novels since then, Dear Otto, A Selfish Woman, and, this spring, Silence. And here is what he had to say:

“I thought I’d take criticism of the critics a step further. Years ago I reviewed books regularly for the Greensboro Daily News, which had a good book page edited by Jonathan Yardley. Although I did pan a few books, I tried to find books to praise and simply to ignore those I didn't care for. The impulse, though, for many reviewers is to flatter the self at the expense of others.” In a later email he added that “certain critics I knew in those days were inclined to write a review so quotable that a publisher might put it on the back of a dustjacket so that they might see their own name in print.”

Then, there are these comments from three excellent on-line reviewers:

From Clark Isaacs (Clark’s Eye on Books ( “As I have said before, if you read a novel, non-fiction or whatever, and you cannot say anything nice, do not say anything at all. There are shortcomings in everything, but to say the work is totally abject is wrong. Critics do realize the blood, sweat, and often tears go into the work. It just does not make sense to slam someone's efforts when you have such a limited space and such a limited audience.”

From Wisteria Leigh ( “Why, in this age of reduced coverage, would critics bother to give scathing reviews when there were so many good books out there that never get covered at all. This practice pissed me off as well. Writing for my blog Bookworm's Dinner, I will not waste the time writing a review to slam a writer for a book I consider below par. It is just not worth the effort. I would much rather promote and feature those writers whose books rock my world.”

And from Chiron ( : “I agree with Wisteria. Why waste time reading lousy books, and even more time reviewing them. I occasionally get comments on my blog, that I only post positive reviews. Right! Too many (good) books; too little time!”

This leads me to attempt some analysis of this situation.

It seems to me that if a reviewer is assigned a book, there is only one thing he or she can possibly do: review it honestly, whether good, bad or indifferent. But for reviewers who are well established (like Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin, for example) and who likely can review any title they wish, what purpose is served by skewering a novel by a mid-list author? Further, how does the critic think about his or her role? Or do they think about it at all? And do the publications they write for believe in spreading the word about what’s best in our culture, or are they more interested in showing their readers how their critics minds work?

The more I think about this the more it seems to me that there is an inherent conflict between criticism and narcissism, and I would venture that too often critics who can pick and choose what they wish to review are caught up in the narcissism of showing you how artfully and dazzlingly they can take something apart. Anyone watching the news can appreciate that train wrecks and other disasters satisfy a morbid curiosity that all of us harbor and many relish hearing about. John Simon, the theater critic, had a wicked ability to trash actors, directors, and plays and parlayed his dazzlingly acerbic style into a grand reputation. But I would have hated to have him as a friend or to a dinner party, for fear of his verbal, showy nastiness when the party was over.

Contrarian thoughts:

FaceBook and LinkedIn: Someone told me that FaceBook was a worthwhile site for communicating with others. I tried it for awhile and recently dropped out. My epiphany came when a woman from Sri Lanka wrote to me saying she wanted to be my friend. I wrote back that, not only didn’t I know her, but she already had nearly 200 friends listed and hardly needed another one. While this may be a useful thing for adolescents and college students, or a way of staying in touch with a large group of people in one’s present or past when you don’t have the time to talk with them directly, I find no value in it at all. I’m not interested in what people have for dinner, or who they are dating, or any of the other items that occupy 95% of what you will find on this site. If I want to get in touch with a friend, or a friend with me, there’s nothing that beats a personal email or a telephone call. Same with LinkedIn; supposedly a network that establishes business connections. Like FaceBook, though, it seems like a game in which the “winner” has the most “links.” But these links are rarely in the service of anything I work at, and I no longer answer these requests either. Too little time to play with electronic crazes such as these. Nor do I understand Twitter mania for any purposes other than organizing street protests here and abroad. Writing Haiku is something I respect: disciplining one’s self to writing a poem in 17 syllables. But what is the big deal of sending messages limited to 40 characters (including spaces)?

Online coverage:

One of the joys in publishing is discovering the many excellent on-line reviewers who have taken up the baton that print reviewers have dropped. There is no bias here against first novelists (as there is in the daily New York Times reviews), no bias in terms of “brand-name” authors versus unknowns and no favoritism of non-fiction over fiction (as there is in the vast majority of other newspapers and magazines). There is also wonderful, articulate writing. The best we’ve met are simply searching for good books—including quality fiction—and, not being salaried; they do it out of love and passion. If you are a book review editor at a newspaper or review journal looking to supplement your free-lance staff, you’d do well to consider some of these people as well:

Wisteria Leigh (mentioned earlier in this blog), is also a frequent contributor to and on July 9th did the first advance review for Louise Young’s Seducing the Spirits ( And Louise Young herself posted an interesting blog on RedRoom “On Being Censored” (

On July 28, Marc Schuster at Small Press Review, covered Amy Boaz’s Beat, in an analysis that no other critic (including the publishers) had ever come up with and which fit the novel like a perfectly sized-glove (

On August 7, Allison Campbell (, another wonderful on-line reviewer, posted her superb review (the first we've had) for Margaret Hawkins's A Year of Cats and Dogs.

On August 14, Amy Steele ( posted a wonderful review of Amy Boaz's Beat. which also ran on the Herald de Paris website.

An excellent review by Teresa Aguilar on The Compulsive Reader for M.F. Bloxam’s The Night Battles: has its own series, Life Between My Pages! It will feature a selected author each month who will share with you their personal story about how they got to where they are today. You won’t want to miss the August profile on Joan Schweighardt (We’ve published three of Joan’s novels over the years). Here’s the link:

Stephen March had a video interview for Strangers In The Land Of Egypt:

And, finally, a superlative review of Connie Dial’s mystery, Internal Affairs, in the Richmond Times Dispatch by Jay Strafford which was also posted in their on-line edition

Take note that Seducing the Spirits, The Night Battles, A Year of Cats and Dogs, and Internal Affairs are all first novels, and that Beat is a second effort. So if any of you are potential first novelists, don’t be discouraged. Though you will never see a daily New York Times review, as their policy now stands, there are some very welcoming online possibilities out there for you.

A final note:

Since starting this blog in January, we’re 18 visits short of 1,000 hits, and it has grown incrementally, with last month’s posting, supplying nearly 700 visits. If you haven’t subscribed yet, I invite you to do so. If you have any problems subscribing, send me an email ( or phone.

I welcome your comments and hope to hear from you in order to best continue this dialog. Next posting sometime in mid-September...


Monday, July 13, 2009

What Pisses Me Off...

I consider myself to be a spiritual person, though not a member of any religious tribe. Among the great influences that have shaped my thinking (aside from frequent psychedelic trips in mid-life) is Buddhism and the Tao te Ching. The Buddha taught that desire is the cause of unhappiness: if one rids themselves of expectations, one rids themselves of disappointments. Lao Tse, in explaining the spiritual life says those who talk don’t know and those who know don’t talk. All of this is also summed up in the Desiderata, one of the dictums being that the universe is unfolding exactly as it should.
These thoughts are things I frequently fall back on so as not to get caught up in the frustrations life readily throws one’s way

Accordingly, I prefer serendipity to discipline when it comes to spiritual practice and believe that courses for self-improvement are doomed to fail. While sitting in a lotus position and meditating was worth trying, this practice was much more likely to make my hips ache than further enlightenment. And though I never considered myself “enlightened,” I do testify that I fully accept myself as who I am. Which means that while I can talk myself out of expectations, anger and disappointments, I also know that things come up that simply piss me off. So let me share some of them with you.

Today’s topic came about when I first read the Arts section of the June 26 issue of The New York Times. The lead story, written by Motoko Rich, was headlined "James Frey Collaborating on a Novel for Young Adults, First in a Series." Yes, that James Frey, who, as Ms Rich wrote, “was famously caught embellishing details in A Million Little Pieces.” And, despite the fact the Oprah disowned him for his deceits, “Two years ago he reportedly received more than $1 million as an advance for Bright Shiny Morning from Harper Collins. Although the book received mixed reviews, it garnered a notable rave from Janet Maslin in The New York Times. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, Bright Shiny Morning sold 71,000 copies in hardcover and 10,000 in paperback.” What is this new collaboration about? Frey “is working with another writer and anonymously shopping around a young adult novel called I Am Number Four.” This collaboration between Frey (acting anonymously) and “an unnamed up-and-coming writer,” is being pitched by one Eric Simonoff, a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor. Frey came up with the idea of a “proposed six-book series,” about “a group of nine alien teenagers on a planet called Lorien, which is attacked by a hostile race from another planet. The nine and their guardians evacuate to Earth, where three are killed. The protagonist, a Lorien boy named John Smith, hides in Paradise, Ohio, disguised as a human, trying to evade his predators and knowing he is next on their list.”

Reading this article set off a connected series of things that pissed me off. But before firing artillery at The New York Times, let me also say that I love this newspaper, which I’ve been reading for 60 years now, starting as a teenager, commuting from my parents’ home in Queens to The High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. It has consistently given the widest, fairest and best print coverage of news, political skullduggery, and the arts. I also had the opportunity to work there one year, while attending NYU’s College of Medicine as a “night intern,” seeing people who were sick and taking splinters out of the eyes of pressmen who set hot type way back then. So, naturally, I've always had high expectations for this Grey Lady.

When Judy and I began publishing 30 years ago, we happily found extraordinary support in Sunday’s Book Review section. To start with, Thomas Lask, in his “End Papers” column, somehow picked up on a letter we wrote to the Authors Guild, announcing that we were starting an imprint called Second Chance Press, seeking to give worthwhile books, out-of-print for at least 20 years, a second chance. This resulted in our being sent 600 books, and the six we chose made up our first list. Later, under editors Mike Levitas, Becky Sinkler and Chip McGrath, we often had review coverage of three or four of our 12 titles a year, nearly all for Permanent Press releases. If coverage is far less now, I can’t bellyache, for review space has been so drastically reduced. Insofar as the daily Times was concerned (an entirely separate division), Anatole Broyard wrote an exceptional review on Thursday, January 31, 1980 for Richard Lortz’s The Valdepenas, our very first review from our very first list. I mention all this in order to set the table about expectations and the “pissed off” phase one goes through when such expectations are not fulfilled.

Reading Motoko Rich’s James Frey story made me realize how pissed off I‘ve felt in the past about the daily Times Monday through Saturday book coverage. Since Broyard’s review, there have been over 7,000 additional reviews in the daily editions over the past 29-and-a-half years, and not one other book of ours has gotten coverage: this despite the fact that in that period of time we published a Nobel Prize winning author (Halldor Laxness), 12 novels by a Nobel Prize nominee (Berry Fleming), had a National Book Award finalist (Sandra Scofield), Hammett Prize and Edgar Award finalists and winners (Randall Silvis, Domenic Stansberry and Reed Farrel Coleman) and, in 1998, won the equivalent of a publishing Oscar: Literary Market Place’s LMP Award for Editorial Achievement—a prize open to every publisher, large and small, in America, and voted upon by our colleagues in the book industry. This failure to reappear in the daily Times made me think of the remark by a frustrated Hollywood ingénue, who once said, “Who do you have to go to bed with to get into this motion picture?” Obviously I’ve never figured that one out, but if I have to sleep with Eric Simonoff, Frey’s agent, to command this sort of space for one of our authors, I’ll have to take a pass because—no offense Eric—I’m simply into women.

A few weeks ago I read a scathing Times book review by Janet Maslin. I remember when Janet went from film critic many years ago to being one of the daily book critics. I’d always appreciated her intelligent movie reviews and wrote to her, hoping that she might have an interest in some of our titles, while telling her about the drought we’d been experiencing. She responded positively and asked us to send her future releases, which again raised expectations, since Michiko Kakutani, the Critic Emeritus during this period of time would never answer queries. But nothing came of that, either. Which made me think “Why, in this age of reduced coverage, would critics bother to give scathing reviews when there were so many good books out there that never get covered at all.” This practice pissed me off as well.

In Motoko Rich’s James Frey coverage about I Am Number Four (with a plot that seemed perfect if you were either retarded or a teen-aged reader or writer), it’s important to note that no publisher in the United States had yet bought it. Therefore it was a non-story when it came to art and culture, though it might have made sense in the business section of the Times under a headline such as "Book Written by Two Famous Anonymous Writers Fails to Find a Publisher"… maybe a take off on "GM Fails to Find a Buyer for Pontiac." I was again pissed off that a guy who conned Oprah and the reading public with his first book was again getting so much coverage in the Arts section while far better and lesser known writers were getting no attention at all. One of my only compensations was reading that the million dollar advance paid for Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning would never be earned back by Harper Collins. Based on the sales Ms Rich reported, I would be surprised if it earned more than $150,000 to $200,000 dollars…an $800,000 plus loss for Harper Collins. And people in the business wonder why the book industry is in trouble?

Lastly, her article raised the question of why so many critics and columnists take the Nielsen BookScan figures seriously, despite their claim that they track 70% of retail sales. Last year, after one major publishing house expressed interest in reprinting one of Chris Knopf’s mystery novels, they told me that one problem was that, according to BookScan, we had only sold 400 plus copies, when in truth we were in a third printing and had sold 4,500 copies. It’s a fact of life that in today’s climate, reprinters only want to take on titles that have proved to be somewhat successful. When BookScan underestimates Chris’s sales by 90%, this poses an insurmountable barrier. So I called BookScan and spoke to one of their directors who informed me that they don’t track library sales or sales by small independent bookstores. They do track sales in some huge discounted superstores (think Target and Walmart), sales at airports, at the big chains like Barnes & Noble and others of that ilk, as well as Since we never sell to any of the chains, for reasons explained in earlier blogs, nor airport shops, nor superstores, we are up the proverbial shit’s creek in getting accurate and substantiated sales figures out for our titles, as we rely heavily on library sales and sales to the small independent bookstores (and Amazon, too…which is where BookSpan probably got their 400 plus sales report from). I now think of BookScan as BookScam and get “pissed off” when their figures are taken seriously for anything other than blockbuster sales.

And here’s my final report, this having to do with having read a piece called Book Brahmin: Steve Hockensmith in Shelf Awareness, an online book industry daily newsletter on July 10. There was a huge photo of the cover of his novel The Crack in the Lens, accompanied by the following text: Steve Hockensmith is the author of the Holmes on the Range historical mysteries for St. Martin's Minotaur. The first book in the series was nominated for the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony and Dilys awards. The latest, The Crack in the Lens, hasn't been nominated for anything, but maybe that's because it won't be out till July 21. Hockensmith and the narrator of his books, cowboy detective "Big Red" Amlingmeyer, share a blog at

What pisses me off about this posting is that these distinctions Hockensmith has supposedly earned are misleading to the point of fraudulence. Being nominated for all these awards doesn’t mean a thing, other than the fact that the publisher nominated it (publishers can’t nominate for the Nobel prize, however). For the thousands of books nominated for most awards, the only thing one can honestly brag about are ones that are finalists or winners, and very few nominees gain that status. But a member of the public reading this copy would assume that Hockensmith was a marvelous writer. If this copy is written by the people who run Shelf Awareness, shame on them. If, on the other hand, it is a paid advertisement from St. Martin’s Press, it should be labeled as such. In any event, it makes me skeptical about continuing to read this newsletter. Chris Knopf has been a finalist for three book awards and a winner of one, and some of the folks at Shelf Awarenss know this, though there’s been no mention of his actual accomplishment. I’d say that if you want to tap into a good writer's web site, try our mystery writer instead; Chris Knopf at

If books sell by word-of-mouth and coverage—which they do—and if one values quality over celebrity and spin, it should be clear that the things that piss me occur when the undeserving get coverage while quality novelists get the short end of the stick.

I welcome your comments.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Gobbledygook versus Substance

As in politics, so be it in the corporate world, where spokespersons continually put the best face on what they are doing. With respect to publishing, most anyone in the business of publishing books—from big-time to smaller houses, to agents and scouts, and even to printers—will acknowledge that things are crappy, with layoffs and shrinking acquisitions the rule. Independent bookstores will also testify to this, where their existence has been under assault for decades as the expansion of chain stores have put so many of them out of business. However, there is one player on this stage who continues to spin optimism as deceptive as what we witnessed from General Motors, AIG, and nearly all the investment and large banking corporations which, up until they folded, were assuring investors that things would be fine and not to worry. So it is not surprising that the biggest bookseller in the world would be singing this same siren’s song.

This déjà vu experience came to me again on May 21, when, in their online daily edition, Publishers Weekly featured an article with the following headline: Sales Fall Less Than Expected at Barnes & Noble; Has Improved Outlook. Reading the copy, however, puts the lie to this optimism from the first sentence on: “Sales fell slightly less than expected in the first quarter ended May 2 at Barnes & Noble, declining 4%...” but “since the retailer had expected a decline in sales of between 6% and 9%,” Len Riggio and the gang at B & N considered this a sign of “improvement.” Digging deeper into this article it appeared that B & N's net losses in the first quarter amount to $2.1 million (nearly four times higher than first quarter losses last year) despite cost-cutting efforts and plans to close 15 superstores this year. While lesser losses than predicted hardly indicates good times ahead, it's common practice on Wall Street to underestimate profits and overestimate losses. Then, when the actuality shows greater profits and lesser losses, one can claim things are turning around. In the end, though, this is simply another case of putting lipstick on a pig.

One need only add to this the fact that Barnes & Noble is also planning to take over the Borders Group (which also operates Waldenbooks and is the 2nd largest chain in America). However, sales at Waldenbooks fell 19.9%, there were 11 store closures, and a 5.5% drop in same store sales. “A series of one-time expenses ate into the company’s bottom line resulting in a loss from continuing operations of $86 million compared to a loss of $30.1 million in last year’s first quarter.” To lower costs in the quarter, Borders cut capital expenditures from $27 million to $2.4 million and reduced inventory by 22%.” This planned acquisition reminds me of G. M.’s acquisitions of Hummer, Saab and other auto companies which have since proved toxic and were soon sold off because of continuing losses. Nor is it impossible that America’s largest bookseller could go the way of America’s largest auto company. Perhaps not, but don’t bet against it. After all, Barnes & Noble stock has fallen from $44 a share in June 2007 to half that amount today—a statistic that is not mentioned in B & N’s rosy press releases. I’ve news for you, Mr. Riggio: the only good news in all of this, is that the vulnerability of B & N could auger well for the return of the local independent bookseller, an essential component to those of us interested in preserving quality fiction.

And here’s another bit of gobbledygook concerning the recent Book Expo held in New York City last month and, as usual, reported on dutifully by all major news media as an important cultural/business event that serves to publicize “What’s hot” and “What’s not.” While there were quotes from various editors about “Big Books” and “Buzzes,” the most important news was rarely mentioned: the fact that only one fourth of those attending were booksellers. Total attendance was 29,000 plus, of which 17,000 were exhibitors and only 7,000 book buyers; the remainder were mostly people working for the media who were covering this “important event,” and trying to find substance in a gathering that had little to offer. (Unreported in the media was our one little event of importance: that Chris Knopf’s Head Wounds won an important mystery award sponsored by the IBPA—the Independent Book Publishers Association.)

Two weeks ago I read the lead review by Robert Pinsky, our former Poet Laureate, of Elmore Leonard’s 44th thriller, Road Dogs, in The New York Times Book Review, and then heard the two of them on an hour long NPR radio station. It was a thrilling review and interview and I had to get a copy. Ever since reading Leonard’s Cuba Libre, some dozen or more years ago, I was enthralled by his talent. I’ve since read over 30 of his novels and, like others, came to consider him the best crime writer ever. If, at age 83, his novels have lost a bit of punch, so be it; he’s still the real deal and deserves every bit of attention he gets.

Last week I read Road Dogs and once again Chris Knopf came to mind. I remember that when we received Chris’s manuscript for The Last Refuge five years ago, I found myself musing over how much Knopf and Leonard had in common; both being masters of dialogue who create memorable characters, add dollops of humor to balance tension in their plots, and have their own, though different, poetic sensibilities. I also felt Refuge to be more engaging than Elmore’s The Hot Kid, released earlier, which I had just finished. Again, this time, for all the praise for Road Dogs, I once more thought it not as tight and engaging as Chris’s latest release in his Sam Acquillo mystery series, Hard Stop, and the two other novels sandwiched in between. While Knopf has not yet hit the “Big Time” with three books under his belt and a fourth just released weeks ago, it took Leonard a good half-dozen attempts before he came to major prominence; a prominence achieved by turning out one wonderful read after another before his artistry became impossible to ignore. Here again the similarities are evident.

When we published The Last Refuge in 2005, it was greeted by critical acclaim, seven international sales, a rave review by Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times Book Review, and repeatedly drew comparisons to not only Elmore Leonard, but to John D. MacDonald, and Ross MacDonald. Plus it was a finalist for the 2006 Connecticut Book Award.

Chris’s second, Two Time (2006), again gained excellent reviews, more international sales, and now Sam, his protagonist, was being compared to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Robert Parker’s Spenser. Two Time was one of thirteen mysteries listed in Marilyn Stasio's "Recommended Summer Reading" column in The New York Times Book Review in 2006, and was listed in Entertainment Weekly as one of the 50 "Hot Picks" of that summer. Publishers Weekly chose it as one of the “Best 100 Books for 2006.” It, and Philip Roth’s Everyman, were runner-ups for the 2007 Connecticut Book Award.

Head Wounds (2008), the third in this series, again gained great critical acclaim, and on May 28 (during the poorly attended, and mentioned, Book Expo) was awarded the prestigious Ben Franklin Award for Best Mystery this year. It was also a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Mystery Award. All three of these Sam Acquillo mysteries made the Book Sense/Indie Next Lists, all were recorded by Blackstone Audiobooks, all were taken by Wheeler in the US for large print editions, and all were done by Random House Canada. All told 21 international rights have been sold for this series with one or more taken in England, Spain, Japan, Turkey, Italy, and China.

We’ve already signed up his “stand alone” thriller, Elysiana, for 2010, and Chris is working on a fifth Sam Acquillo mystery for 2011. In addition, he’s signed a two book contract with St. Martins for a mystery series featuring Jackie Swaitkowski (Sam’s ditzy female lawyer)—both novels have already been purchased by Random House Canada and Blackstone Audiobooks (our partners since “Sam One”—The Last Refuge—was published). At this rate, his current productivity rate is akin to that of Elmore’s, insofar as he will have authored eight thrillers within a seven year period of time. And like Elmore (who worked as a copywriter at an ad agency for seven years while working on his fiction), that’s exactly how Chris began as well.

Is it little wonder then that I see Chris as following in the Elmore Leonard’s footsteps? If any of you have read both Knopf and Leonard, I would welcome your comments. If you haven’t read any of Chris’s novels, I’ll gladly introduce him to you at no cost: all you need do is email me ( and ask for a pdf copy of The Last Refuge, and I will gladly send it to your computer for downloading.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Where I Left Off

In my last blog posting, Bad News/Good News, I promised to continue my comments on where the publishing industry stands right now. And the news, generally speaking, is glum indeed—particularly among the giants in the industry. Simon & Schuster’s parent company, CBS, announced that the publishing house had an operating loss of $2.1 million compared to operating income of $14.6 million in last year’s first period…a $16.7 million decline, as sales declined nearly 20%. Harper Collins reported almost the same sized drop in revenue and a $38 million loss. And Bertelsmann reported that total revenue fell 7%, with the company having a net loss of 78 million euros ($106.4 million) compared to earnings of 77 million euros ($105 million) in last year’s first quarter—a net decline of $211.4 million. Though no mention was made of Random House’s performance, Bertelsmann expects revenue and profits to decline for the year.

The good news, though, is that The Permanent Press is doing a hell of lot better than any of the giants, as our income from book sales have more than doubled from the same period last year. Of course, we’re not dealing in the millions, only in the tens of thousands, where total income from book sales came to $105,000 rather than the $42,000 posted for last year’s first quarter. The bad news, for us, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to collect money from our largest wholesaler, Baker and Taylor, who owe us $101,000—$46,000 of which is more than 90 days overdue. This has produced a squeeze based on success, where our printers are eager for prompt payment and our major wholesaler seems intent on holding on to our funds for as long as possible. My guess is that this is due to the financial pinch everyone is suffering. Hopefully this will be resolved shortly, because B&T has been a much better wholesaler than Ingram, who we dismissed two years ago…along with attempts to sell books to the Barnes & Noble stores.

It’s peevish, I know, to hold grudges and delight when others in the business, who have treated us badly, suffer. But, hey, I’m neither Mother Theresa nor Gandhi, and so the declining fortunes of Barnes & Noble put a special smile on my face. Back in 2004 we published Kay Sloan’s The Patron Saint of Red Chevys, and it was made A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. That’s when the trouble started. We were told by Jill Lamar, who headed this program, that this would mean a large purchase, display space with other Great New Writers selections, and that B&N would discount all these books at 20% and put flyers all over their stores. But we were urged to reduce our projected $26 publishing price to $21.95 “so that we can sell-through and this should help a great deal.” Well, they were the experts. How could I resist. The upshot was that they order 3,300 copies directly from us which caused us to order 5,000 copies instead of the 1,500 we had planned on. When, four months later, they returned 3,000 copies I was shocked. “What happened,” I asked Jill. “You didn’t get enough publicity for it,” she answered, apparently oblivious to the “sell” that B&N would be supplying that very publicity.

I decided, after that conversation to speak with a publishing friend, Jill Schoolman, at Archipelago who, the year before had a book chosen for the Discover program. It turns out she had the same experience, being told by Jill Lamar to reduce her price, and how this would result in selling most if not all copies. B&N ordered 4,000 copies of her book and, four months later, returned 3,600.

Worse yet, these returns, though purchased from us directly, were returned through Ingram—ninety percent of them in unsaleable condition. The dust jackets were scuffed, or the edges of the spines or book covers were dented, and more than half of them had Barnes & Noble stickers on the front cover. Had B&N returned them to us, I would have rejected them, and so I called Ingram and complained on two grounds: one being that they hadn’t ordered through Ingram and also that the cartons Ingram returned the books in were poorly packed so that book shifted about loosely, causing additional damages. Ingram’s answer was that “We have an open return system and accept books back whether they are ordered form us or not,” and they took a credit for these returns of $33,000. “But they were poorly packed. Do you send books to bookstores loosely packed?” “No, we secure them in boxes with shrink wrapping around the lot of them.” “Then why don’t you do that for returns to publishers?” “It’s too costly.”

I demanded that they take back all the damaged books and credit us back for them. “Sorry, we only allow a maximum of 10% in credits a year no matter what the reasons. That’s just the cost of doing business with us (along with charging us for maintaining our books on Ingram’s website)” Well, the good news that came out of all this is that after a year in which Ingram ordered books from us, and paid us nothing until their chargeback was eliminated, we fired them. And, surprise, surprise, we found that our sales not only were unaffected, but that we were now able to sell to directly, who never over order and pay within 30 days time, instead of having Amazon order from Ingram.

Good riddance to these aggravations—which leads to this piece of advice to small publishers: avoid both Barnes & Noble and Ingram like the plagues they are. (Another ridiculous hurdle that B&N imposes on small publishers is that—unlike the way they treat the giants—their Small Press buyer will order only after seeing finished copy of the book, by which time one has already settled on a print run determined in part by advance orders.) Barnes & Noble is just another superstore, like Walmart, that likes to stock its abundant shelves with merchandise at no risk to them, since everything is returnable, even if it's left in shabby condition, while the Discovery program served their purposes of cloaking themselves, however falsely, with having "literary" sensibilities. But deep down, like Ingram, they treat their suppliers shabbily, for their overwhelming concerns are with their "bottom line" profits. Despite their public gloss and insider reputations, publishers deal with both of them at their own risk. To have any chance of long term success means dealing with booksellers in a mutually beneficial and respectful way, which is why we prefer the small, independent bookstores over the chains, and reject high-handed wholesalers like Ingram.

Okay, enough with the complaints. Here is the unabashedly good news from The Permanent Press:

Chris Knopf’s Head Wounds is one of three finalists for both ForeWord Magazine’s Mystery Award and the IBPA’s Ben Franklin Best Mystery Awards for 2009. Ceremonies in New York City by the Independent Booksellers Publishing Association on May 28 will announce winners in all categories. Also, Chris had a wonderful interview in The Hartford Courant in their Sunday, May 10 issue with Carole Goldberg, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, in which he had sage advice to give to writers. The link to it is well worth reading on line:,0,1830655.story

The American Library Association nominated Ivan Goldman’s novel The Barfighter (released in April), as a 2009 Notable Book. Ivan, besides his knowledge of boxing, was also a Rhodes Scholar and has a wonderful blog, “Digging Deeper” that nails it politically. His latest, a must read, is entitled Obama Lets Financial Dogs Out, is one of the best takes on Obama’s financial advisers. You can read it by clicking on to his site:

Here’s some other blog news: Louise Young, whose novel Seducing the Spirits will appear in November (one of two first novels we put up for the $10,000 Mercantile Center for the Novel’s First Novel Award and for the National Book Award —the other being J.P. White’s Every Boat Turns South, appearing in September) had her Red Room blog chosen as the best blog of the week a couple of weeks ago by this writers site (, and Charles Davis (whose classic first novel Walk On, Bright Boy, drew rave reviews, whose second, a satire, Walking the Dog, was published last year, and whose gripping third novel, Standing at the Crossroads will appear in 2011) had his blog chosen the week after that. On our recently updated website,, you can see and read about Louise and Jay’s novels listed under forthcoming books. Both are very special. Charles's fiction is in our Backlist.

A last word concerning Award nominations: M.F. Bloxam’s The Night Battles and Amy Boaz’s A Richer Dust are finalists in the ForeWard Magazine’s Book of the Year Awards in the Literary Fiction category.

And another bit of excellent news: Connie Dial’s Internal Affairs (due in July) received an unsolicited and powerful endorsement from one of America’s premier mystery novelists, Thomas Perry, an Edgar Award winning and national bestselling author who called it “A fascinating thriller in which the savage murder of a female police officer with an edgy personal life exposes an LAPD we haven't seen before: the gulf between careerists and crime-fighters; the half-supportive, half-cutthroat coterie of high-ranking women; the undercover surveillance specialists who are never in the news. Connie Dial brings a fresh, authentic voice to the genre… a talented writer with an observant eye and a good ear for dialogue. It was a pleasure to read her first book.”

Until the next posting and, as always, I welcome your comments.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Bad News/Good News

In the body politic there is bad news and good:
The bad news, as Robert Reich declared last week (underlining what many of us had already concluded), is that we are now in a “Depression” which will likely worsen in the immediate future. The good news is that we’ve got a president who combines warmth, wit, intelligence, and compassion and who is committed to changing the status quo. The up-side of all this is that this crises provides the impetus to establish a saner economic system to curb cut-throat capitalism, lower the gap between the super-rich and ordinary people and provide better social safety nets (including universal health care, and “green” legislation that can slow down the toxicity that is poisoning us all).

These same contradictions and opportunities apply to the business of books. The news here is incredibly bad, and worsened by the fact that there is no president who can reform this system—just a lot of large corporate publishers facing declining sales who are scrambling to avoid massive red-ink by laying off workers, putting moratoriums on acquisitions, and closing imprints. Last week Publishers Weekly, in an effort to help so many senior people who’ve been pink-slipped, added to their daily on-line edition, a free listing of those suddenly out-of-work and a way to contact them if openings developed elsewhere. Yet conversations with Rudy Shur at Square One, Dan Simon at Seven Stories Press and other publishers/editors make it clear that there is no new hiring going on.

General Motors made a case that if they disappeared, so would tens of thousands of others, like suppliers and dealerships. As large publishers continue to shrink, so do opportunities for their suppliers: new and mid-list writers (who find it extremely difficult to find their way into print) and literary agents, who repeatedly tell me how their business has fallen off because of unprecedented difficulties in finding spots for the writers they represent. Adding to this toxicity is the disappearance of newspapers and the drastic reduction of book review space.

The good news is that this collapse will necessarily change the paradigm of how the written word becomes a book and how these books become marketed. Clearly CEO’s of most major publishing companies did not anticipate these circumstances and the personal heartbreak that has followed. To expect change from above is the same as expecting executives at AIG or GM to reform the banking or automotive industry. As I see it, the operative term for viability and change in our business would be one coined in the 60’s: “Small is Beautiful.” And I believe that is already happening.

I take it as good news that the chain bookstores are in serious trouble. Decades back, neighborhood bookstores accounted for more than three quarters of book sales while employing people who enjoyed reading and could recommend titles to customers. The chains totally reversed these percentages by their own rapacious practices: buying in larger quantities while demanding bigger discount from publishers, charging publishers for display space, and offering steeper discounts to customers. Using their profits to open ever more stores, they drove countless independents out of business. In effect, like Citibank, Chase, and others in the banking system, the Daltons, Borders, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Nobles (who even started competing with publishers by publishing their own titles that they would sell exclusively in their stores) came to dominate retail sales, while selling publishers on the idea that they were too big to ignore. But without dedicated staff who read and hand-sold, it did little to help bring new writers to the attention of readers. “Too big to fail” is the mantra of collapsing banks in seeking bailouts. But bailouts are unknown in the publishing industry. And, in truth, when entities become too big, as the chains have become, they become de facto monopolies. So let us rejoice in the troubles at the chains and welcome back the neighborhood book store.

Offsetting the bad news of disappearing newspaper reviews is the good news concerning the incredible proliferation of online and blog review sites. Books sell, essentially, by virtue of word-of-mouth. The question has always been, in this nation of 300 million people, "How do potential readers first discover a book?" Clearly, reaching pockets of readers around the country is much more likely through blog reviewers than getting a review in any big city newspaper, which only attract a local audience at best (and a limited one, too, since only a minority of newspaper readers actually read book reviews: another reason why papers are cutting down on them). The only national newspaper that still has a separate book review section is The New York Times, but their shrinking Sunday book section typically restricts themselves to 5 fiction reviews and 10 non-fiction reviews—hardly a way of spreading much word-of-mouth for relatively unknown novelists. Therefore bloggers and online reviewers, who have far less interest in celebrity authors and books about celebrities, far more interest in discovering new talent than repeating coverage of old talent, and who seem at least as interested in fiction as non-fiction, are a welcome transformation.

All of the bad news for conglomerate publishing should spell good news for small publishers who are sent more and better manuscripts from authors and agents and who can gain far better access to reviews because of the internet. I know that despite all the gloom and doom, our good news is that sales of our fiction were higher in 2008 than they were in 2007, and that this year—with the publication and fine pre-pub and widespread online reviews of Efrem Sigel’s The Disappearance, Daniel Klein’s The History of Now, and Ivan Goldman’s The Barfighter—they have started off significantly higher than our 2008 sales. And, being small, we have not had to lay off any staff. The bad news is that sub-rights income has declined significantly, for there is no market for selling paperback rights in the United States and a declining market for translation rights sales abroad, since large European and Asian publishers are having the same economic problems as the major American publishers. But, overall, this is something we can live with far better than the Monsters of the Midway.

Years ago I came to realize that the corporate publishing practice of tossing out several hundred titles a year and hoping that some of them will stick to the wall was not a sound business model. Economically speaking, it's far more effective to put out a dozen or so books annually while paying attention to promoting each and every one, for it requires less staff and office overhead, allows the selections to be more focused and refined, and offers greater protection against the vicissitudes of the larger economy and the marketplace. Given the current climate, I would say that the concept of "Small is Beautiful" provides a better template for the future of book publishing than the one currently in place.

Part Two to follow in my next blog posting. Other news on our website


Saturday, March 21, 2009

An Auto-Interview (which has nothing to do with cars)

I've thought it might be interesting to post a blog from time to time where some of our writers were interviewed. But rather than fall into the James Lipton trap where he would always ask his actor interviewees the same questions, I thought it might be more rewarding if the authors could interview themselves. Since Daniel Klein's The History of Now has just been published, without further ado, here is his Auto-Interview:

Walter Ygo: So tell me, Danny, what’s an old guy like you--and I don’t mean just chronologically old, I’m talking dentures, hearing aids, Viagra in the medicine chest old--so what’s an old guy like you doing writing his first literary novel?

Danny Klein: Well, Walter, truth is I wasn’t ready to write something like The History of Now until now because I’m a slow learner. It took me all these years of writing humor, philosophy, detective novels, and thrillers to learn the craft of long fiction. How to organize it, how to write it fluently, and perhaps most importantly for me, how to rewrite it patiently.

Walter: So what’s the deal with Permanent Press? It ain’t exactly Penguin Books, you know. And I can’t imagine they gave you much of an advance.

Danny: How true. The advance just covers a round-trip to Boston (taxes not included.) But these Permanent Press people liked the book for all the right reasons, they got it out before I bit the dust, and the principals there, Marty & Judy Shepard, are cute…Oh, and anyway, Penguin isn’t in the market for new fiction these days. But the good news is that Penguin bought the paperback rights to Tom Cathcart’s and my bestseller, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar for big bucks and then gave us a huge advance for another, Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through those Pearly Gates, so I could afford to go with Permanent.

Walter: I see that you call The History of Now a philosophically inclined novel. That sounds like hype to me. And a little pretentious on top of that.

Danny: Yeah, well, maybe I overdid that philosophy angle in the publicity. But philosophical ideas of historical cause and effect did play an organizing role in my mind when I began thinking about the book. Not heavy philosophy, just a guiding principle. Mostly it’s a story of life in a small town.

Walter: I see you live in a small town--Great Barrington, Massachusetts. So is this a roman a clef?

Danny: Jeez, Walter, are you talking French? Sounds a little pretentious to me. Anyway, no, it’s not a roman a clef--the characters are one hundred percent fictional. The geography and demographics of the town--plus a bit of the history--is patterned after Great Barrington, but not the characters. They could be from any town.

Walter: Okay, they always make me ask this one: Why did you become a writer?

Danny: My mother used to say it was the only work I could get where I could make a living telling lies. That was as close as she ever got to approving of my vocation…What can I say? I like making up stuff, love the English language, and in particular, I like working for myself…Anyway, at my age, it’s the only thing I do better than I did when I was younger. For everything else, it’s the other way around.

Walter: Fair enough. Okay, finally, how would you rate The History of Now in terms of contemporary American fiction?

Danny: It’s probably closer to old fashioned story-telling of the Richard Russo variety than, say, what younger writers are doing, say the late David Foster Wallace. I think it’s well written, for what that is worth, and the characters believable. But do I think people will be reading it years from now? No way, Walter.

Walter: Okay, I’ve had enough.

Danny: Me too.

That's it for Danny's interview, which I hope you've enjoyed. I'd be glad to receive other Q&A interviews from authors we'll soon be publishing (send to Also welcome are any proposals for other formats...or topics you'd like to talk about or have me address.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009


One of the great joys inherent in our annual Virgin Gorda vacation is letting go of schedules, waking when the mood suits us, reading on an uncrowded beach, snorkeling over one of the finest reefs in the Caribbean, watching incredibly beautiful sunsets and naming what we see in the cloud formations. The biggest decisions to make concerned where would we go to eat each night and what would we order. Judy and I could get away and know that The Permanent Press was in excellent hands, with our dream team of Rania Haditirto at the helm, aided and abettted by Susanne Gustafsson, our extraordinary intern from Sweden, and Stefanie Beroes, who heroically kept up with orders and collections. But I must say after 12 days of rest and recuperation, returning home and getting back to work was equally exciting.

Rania, who is 31, and Susanne, who is 27, provided a file containing more more than a dozen new reviews for upcoming titles, including two fine pre-publication reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly for Hard Stop, Chris Knopf's fourth Sam Aquillo mystery due in May (to see these latest accolades and others go on to Chris's website:, and filled us in on the continuing success of Efrem Sigel's The Disappearance (now in its third printing) and Daniel Klein's The History of Now (ranked at 20,000 at earlier today). They also decided we weren't "hip" enough, so they've put The Permanent Press on Face Book. Frankly I don't understand the benefit of all this, but I'm not autocratic enough to say "Enough." Maybe they are on to something that I fail to see.

This possibility occurred when I read in today's New York Times that HarperCollins--a month after closing down their Collins imprint due to the implosion facing all of the conglomerate publishing giants--was starting a new imprint, It Books, that would focus "On pop culture, style, and content derived from the Internet, like a planned collection of Twitter posts called Twitter Wit." Another title for their 21 title fall list includes "The Style Strategy by Nina Garia, a judge on Project Runway." If that is "hip," I want no part of it.

It seems to me that "publishng" is a broad term that consists of two very different approaches that are increasingly apparent during this economic mess: a situation more aptly called "The Great Depression 11," rather than pretending we are in a "Recession." In one corner are those marketeers who seek to commission or hook on to something they believe to be trendy. And in the other corner are those who prefer to discover exciting writing that is more timeless. If I were a betting man, I would predict that It Books, headed by Carrie Kania will fail despite the blessings of Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins, who said that "I think we've pulled together the best people wihin our company who are really interested in this and are targeting them to all work together to tap into the Zeitgeist."

Please, Michael, let me give you Webster's definition of Zeitgeist: The spirit of the time, the intellectual and moral tendencies that characterize any age or epoch. If Twitter and Style represent the moral and intellectual tendencies of today, I think you are simply trying to dress up dross with the lipstick of a "hip" German noun. Listen, if you are simply seeking to boost income, why not try starting a "Zeitgeist" greeting card line, like Hallmark, charge $5 for an envelope and a folded card, and stop pretending that It Books is some sort of novel approach. Here's another approach: Why not just try to discover more original books?

Whatever you do, Michael, here's my blessing for you: gesundheit! Or, as Danny Klein quipped, "There's nothing so dated as avant garde passe."