Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Posted April 1st

Before going to Virgin Gorda on our annual vacation in mid-February, I made a trip to the Sag Harbor dump (officially called a ‘recycling center’) to leave our house-sitter, Georgeann Packard, empty garbage pails. On a ledge were two Robert B. Parker thrillers—his first two Sunny Randall novels—discards from the Peconic Library. Since Chris Knopf’s Sam Acquillo series was frequently compared to Parker’s Spencer series, I wanted to read Parker and see what he was about.

It’s been said that vacations can give one perspective, and this trip was certainly true for me, insofar as getting a handle on what makes a book special. I found Parker spellbinding and could easily see the comparisons: start off with a three dimensional narrator, toss in a colorful cast of other characters, offer up great dialogue, add dollops of humor along with the tension inherent in any great thriller, make sure there are surprise twists, and there you have it. Knopf and Parker could have been brothers separated at birth. So now I’m adding his oeuvre to my reading list (having read more than three fourths of Elmore Leonard’s novels—the other writer critics frequently cited when reviewing Chris’ first four Sam Acquillo books: The Last Refuge, Two Time, Head Wounds, and Hard Stop).

Then I read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that Lon Kirschner, our cover artist, sent along for me to take. A bit of a slog (it could have been trimmed by 25% and been even more effective), long on sadomasochistic scenes—three of them, as gruesome as any James Patterson might concoct—and at the end of the novel there was a fourth one, advertising the next in his posthumous series, The Girl Who Played with Fire. Despite two interesting protagonists, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Bloomkvist, I’m not likely to read the next in the series.

After going through and rejecting a manuscript, I ran out of reading material, yet had another week left on this island paradise. So I searched some other units at Mango Bay, where we were staying, and picked thrillers written by several best-selling writers. There was David Baldacci’s Divine Justice and Ken Follet’s Jackdaws. Baldacci’s hero was as two-dimensional as flattened cardboard, his thoughts and actions straight out of a third rate television film. As for Follett, an interesting plot premise but, again, the characters out of Hollywood casting: a handsome Nazi, a beautiful British resistance fighter dropped behind the enemies lines in occupied France, and her handsome resistance fighter husband. Baldacci I was able to put down after the first dozen pages. I went two dozen pages before returning Follett.

And then I was saved by discovering Carl Hiaasen’s Double Whammy. Again, a good protagonist, excellent side characters and villains, an improbable yet inventive plot, and very funny scenes, while Hiaasen’s environmental concerns came through.

When I was a psychiatric resident at Mt Sinai Hospital many decades ago, someone asked one of the attending psychiatrists what the difference was between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. He replied, “Psychoanalysis is what I do. Psychotherapy is what you do.” I enjoyed the humor of his remark, and that same pecking order comes up when defining the really good books. It’s tempting to say “Good books are what we publish,” but what is the second punch phrase? Because every publishing house comes out with some good books. It’s just that the conglomerates do so many schlocky books as well. One of the paperback editors we deal with (I think it was Rebecca Hunt at Penguin) said that this second category is what enables them to do some literary fiction. How, then, does one define an exceptional book—a question Judy raised as we sat watching a sunset on the beach. The best I could come up with after reading these novels was this:

If the major character is someone you want to know better—admire, have compassion for, want to spend time with or even someone who simply excites your curiosity in some way—this is the bedrock for a good novel. The same holds true for certain non-fiction too. Surely, there are other criteria that come into play as well (a good plot, a way with words, good dialogue and, when possible, some sense of humor), but without this affinity for/admiration of a character, these additional measuring sticks count for little. While this is entirely subjective, I could not see myself spending time with John or Elizabeth Edwards, Sarah Palin, or Karl Rove. And certainly not with the major protagonists in fiction written by Follett, Baldacci, Patterson, or Larsson no matter how many mainstream media reviews they get.

Thus, when ForeWord magazine announced after we returned stateside the finalists in their 2009 Book of the Year Awards (the finalists representing 360 publishers, selected from 1,400 entries in 60 categories), it was most heartening to discover that seven of them were novels we published. In the literary fiction category there are 15 finalists—five of which are ours: The Year Of Cats And Dogs (by Margaret Hawkins), Houri (Mehrdad Balali), Seducing The Spirits (Louise Young), The Disappearance (Efrem Sigel), and The History Of Now (Daniel Klein). In the mystery category there are 17 finalists and two of ours are among them: Every Boat Turns South (Jay White) and Hard Stop (Chris Knopf). And the one thing that every one of these novels had in common was that not only did Judy and I feel this strong affinity for the characters in these books but, quite obviously, so did the jurists.

Which brings us up to the excitement of launching two books in May where these criteria also hold. First, there is Elysiana, Chris Knopf’s fifth mystery for us. After winning countless praise and awards for his Sam Acquillo/Hamptons thrillers, which have been translated around the world, this is his first stand alone novel that takes place 40 years ago, at a beach resort off the Jersey coast. A pre-publication review in Publishers Weekly noted that “Smart dialogue and sharp social observations distinguish this stand-alone thriller from Knopf.” A starred review in Booklist adds that “A full baker’s dozen major characters swirl and collide as if in Brownian motion, moved by elemental forces. Signs and portents hint that something life changing, if not quite apocalyptic, will affect them all. Elysiana is a departure for Knopf, whose Sam Acquillo mysteries have won reviewers’ raves, but he nails it.”

Then, there is Michael Zitz’s Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story, which will come out on the first of May when brother Warren’s Berkshire Hathaway Convention begins in Omaha, where both Doris and Warren will be signing copies of her biography. How we obtained this book—and the unique way we are marketing it—was the lead article in Publishers Weekly on Thursday, March 25. As for Doris, she is someone Judy and I fell in love with after reading the manuscript, for she is a philanthropic alchemist who has turned personal pain into joy by virtue of her giving away her fortune to individuals who, through no fault of their own, needed help to overcome adversity. Doris is a great example to anyone who cares about the biggest things in life—compassion, caring, and helping.

Nor does this affinity for characters end here. Two exceptional first novels that we’re publishing this year, Georgeann Packard’s Fall Asleep Forgetting, which appears in July (the same Georgeann who house sat for us while we were in Virgin Gorda to work on her second novel), and Liza Campbell’s The Dissemblers, due out in October, are also rich in people we found fascinating. We’ve nominated both for the $10,000 Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize awarded by the Center for Fiction.

Kindred Matters:

Overprinting and Returns vs. Non-returnables:

One of the banes of the publishing business has been the fact that nothing “sold” to bookstores or wholesalers is actually “sold,” since returns are allowable. In no other manufacturing business is this allowed. Clothing, groceries, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, games, pharmaceuticals, appliances, cars, music, electronics—you name it: once a store has purchased your product, they sell it, discount it as it ages, or accept a loss. In book publishing in general overall return rates are close to 50%, which means that there is much wasted work (shipping books back and forth, crediting returns) and money. Among conglomerates, huge returns can mean that even a Best Seller can lose money because of overprinting. Notorious for returns are the chain bookstores. Barnes & Noble is happy to accept thousands of books knowing that there is no liability for over ordering. In a sense, they can “paper the store” with selections, filling up bookshelves as a decorator would paste wallpaper in a home. In an earlier blog posted one year ago (May 12), entitled, WHERE I LEFT OFF, I documented how Barnes & Noble returned 90% of an order they placed with us after they selected one of our novels for their Great New Writers Program—and did this as well with a book published by Jill Schoolman’s Archipelago Press. It was a wake-up call in two ways: making us decide never to try selling our titles to the chains and also planting the seed that one day it would be nice to test the non-returnable market.

With the forthcoming release of Giving it All Away: The Doris Buffett Story, I felt we had the ideal book to try this with. After all, the chains no longer hold sway. Most consumers go straight to for the best deals. Plus, anything kept out of the chains is a help to the independent bookstores that the chains have helped eviscerate. So we’ve set up a non-returnable system, in conjunction with, the wholesaler Baker & Taylor, and independent bookstores who order five copies or more—giving them a 60% non-returnable discount, while offering the chains nothing at all. So far, this experiment is off to a good start with over 5,000 copies already sold and paid for in advance of publication.

An Update on The Donkey Awards:

In my January 1st blog post, ANNOUNCING THE DONKEY AWARDS, I listed a distinguished panel of writers and critics who would choose a winner for the Equus Asinus Award , given for the “Best Abuse of Space for the Least Deserving Book.” Janet Maslin, one of the three daily New York Times reviewers had several reviews on the list of submissions, but has clearly catapulted into the lead based upon her review in the March 26 issue, covering not one, but two crappy thrillers—Harlan Coben’s Caught and Linwood Barclay’s Never Look Away (I assume they are crappy because Maslin had nothing good to say about either of them, yet still gave them ample coverage): Dan Rattiner, humorist, writer, and founder of Dan’s Papers commented “Snide, stupid, condescending. A winner.” A second jurist, Joan Baum (an NPR and newspaper book critic) wrote “I agree. JM gets the Equus Award—schlock and crock.” We still have three more jurists to hear from.

It made me appreciate the usefulness of this award, How does a book critic who takes herself seriously ignore a Chris Knopf and cover such common trash? Is it because these titles come from Dutton and Random House imprints respectively, while Chris is published by a small press? Or did her years of being a film critic just get her in the groove of seeing a very high percentage of bad films which she felt obliged to cover.

In any event, I don’t mean this as a further knock on The New York Times. There are, actually, some very good reviewers working there. Dwight Garner, in my opinion, is atop the three daily critics by far. He seems to choose books that are frequently off the beaten path, writes about them in ways one would want to read them, and doesn’t go off the deep end in savaging anything; he clearly chooses to review books he finds interesting. New novelists published by small presses would likely get a decent hearing from him were he not restricted to doing non-fiction reviews. Marilyn Stasio does an excellent job of covering mysteries she likes no matter who publishes them (she reviewed the first three Chris Knopf mysteries in her Sunday Book Review column). Nor does Amy Virshup, in her short review column, Newly Released, that appears periodically in the weekday Times, waste space on pop-trash either, choosing, instead, books that she also likes, including some from true independent publishers. My regret is that Amy doesn’t do full length reviews.

I look forward to hearing your definition of what makes a good novel, feedback on The Donkey Award, or any other topic expressed in this blog. If you haven’t yet signed up to receive notification for subsequent blogs, I hope you will do so now. And do check out our ever-evolving and changing website, where our Newsletter is also updated monthly.


Monday, March 1, 2010


Applauding: Herb Simon and Marc Winkelman

Much applause is due to Herb Simon, who has acquired Kirkus Reviews. Simon, who is the owner of the National Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers, is also Chairman Emeritus of Simon Property Group, an S&P 500 corporation. It will operate under the name Kirkus Media and be led by Marc Winkelman—a colleague with an extensive background in the book business. Better yet, both Simon and Winkelman are co-owners of Tecolote Books, an independent bookstore in Montecito, California.

To quote Simon: “I love books and have long subscribed to Kirkus. At a time when even the definition of a book is changing, my love of books makes me want to be part of the solution for the book publishing industry.” Winkelman noted that “we want to serve the whole range of readers including librarians, booksellers, publishing professional’s, and entertainment industry insiders.” That the 77 year old Kirkus will be headed by these two people—where an interest in books is the primary reason for taking on this task—is cause for rejoicing for those who appreciate quality fiction and artful non-fiction. Other than Publishers Weekly, there are few publications left that are still functioning on that level, and Kirkus, with its 3,000 reviews a year—is vital in calling attention to new and talented writers who are largely ignored by mainstream media.

Appalling: Bill Keller

First, some background about 61 year-old Bill Keller, son of George M. Keller, former CEO of Chevron Corporation, the world-wide conglomerate formed after Standard Oil acquired several competing companies way back when. Bill became a journalist immediately after graduating from Pomona College in 1970, working for various newspapers as a reporter before coming to The New York Times in 1984 as a reporter in the Washington D.C. bureau. Then it was on to the Moscow bureau in 1986, which he headed by 1988. In 1992 he became Bureau Chief in Johannesburg. His next post was as Foreign Editor in 1995, Managing Editor by 1997, and then, after serving as Op-ed columnist and senior writer, he became the Executive Editor in July, 2003, where he still serves today. Clearly an impressive career. If you read the masthead of the Times, it becomes apparent that Bill Keller is the most powerful person at the newspaper, his name coming right below that of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher. Keller also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’s obviously made many of the right moves, but his gifts as a journalist did not prevent him from making several clunkers to my mind—like being a “liberal” supporter of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, calling for the resignation of Colin Powell for pursuing a diplomatic solution at the UN that he thought ineffective, and defending reporter Judith Miller for failing to tell prosecutors who, in the Bush White House, fed her a story that resulted in the outing of Valerie Palme—the CIA spy whose husband was a formidable critic of the invasion of Iraq.

Politics aside, less than six months after becoming Managing Editor, Bill Keller—a man with no known literary background—announced changes in the way that books would be covered at the Times. For those who value good books—and there are many of us out there—his decisions have had a profound effect on what is worth covering. I quote from an interview he gave to Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel on January 21, 2004. In his defense, I praise Keller for his honesty; far preferable to the run-arounds given by Jon Landman, head of the Culture Desk at the Times and Kate Bouton who, before retiring, insisted in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the Times tries to achieve a balance between high culture and low. Still, I would have been embarrassed to talk so openly about disinterest in books of quality and to show such ignorance when it comes to his assessments of what is out there. The same could be said for Steve Erlanger, also quoted in this interview, who—like Keller—had journalistic assignments all over the world before he became Editor of the Culture Desk between 2002 and 2004. Here, too, I applaud Erlanger’s great honesty regarding the crap he reviewed positively.

I quote from the interview, which was entitled The Plot Thickens at The New York Times Book Review:
Publishing insiders have watched nervously since Steven Erlanger became cultural editor at The New York Times and began altering the focus of the daily "Books of the Times." Well, they ain't seen nothin' yet. When we sat down with executive editor Bill Keller last week, he promised "dramatic changes" in the Sunday section now that head honcho Chip McGrath is stepping aside. He also indicated that the top brass is rethinking book coverage top to bottom. And which way are the winds blowing?

Well, if you write non-fiction, review non-fiction, or prefer to read non-fiction, break out the champagne. "The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world," Keller says. "Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction."

What's more, if you're perplexed or simply bored with what passes for smart fiction these days, the Times feels your pain. More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we're told. After all, says Keller, somebody's got to tell you what book to choose at the airport.

And who will carry out this mandate? Regarding McGrath's replacement, Keller won't name names yet. But he did say that they're down to three or four finalists, none of them inside staffers. An announcement is just weeks away.

A big step in this process—and the one that may have sent the higher-ups into brainstorming mode—involved inviting about a dozen of the most promising candidates to write "diagnostic essays" on how the Sunday section ought to change. The consensus: Reviews need to be more varied in length, and more contentious. But that's just tinkering around the edges. The bigger news concerns what will be covered. Author interviews, a column on the publishing industry, a decrease in fiction reviews and more about mass market books—this appears to be the recipe for making the NYTBR less formulaic and more vital.

Although Keller's ascendancy has brought plenty of reshuffling at the Times, in the case of the Sunday book review, perceptions in and outside the paper seem to have meshed. Critics have dunned the section for dullness. Even while praising McGrath's exceptional editing skills, Keller made clear that he has different priorities. "I love that Chip championed first novels," he says, then offers the rhetorical question: But why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do? The conclusion was that contemporary fiction has received more column inches than it deserves.

"Of course, some fiction needs to be done," Keller says. "We'll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me." He gets no argument from Erlanger. "To be honest, there's so much shit," the new leader of the daily arts section observes. "Most of the things we praise aren't very good."

Traditionally, chief critic Michiko Kakutani has handled most of the literary fiction for the daily. Her star remains untarnished; Keller refers to her appreciatively as "queen of the hill." Former movie critic Janet Maslin has shown a predilection for commercial fiction, a taste the Times endorses. As with most newspapers, management is obsessed with attracting younger readers and sees mass market titles as one entry point—as long as they're done, Keller says, in a "witty" way appropriate to the Times' sophisticated reader.

Regarding daily coverage, under Erlanger "We need to do more policy and history," he says. "We need to be more urgent and journalistic." For him, this means assigning books with hopes of eliciting some sparks. Example: He asked Max Boot, a conservative on the Council of Foreign Relations, to review "Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response," by Clinton Administration veteran John Shattuck. "I like to mix it up," Erlanger says. "If I could start another Mailer/Vidal fight, I'd gladly do it."

Some of the non-fiction books he reviews for "urgency" are poorly written, he admits, but for him this is less important than the book's contents. He and Keller, both prize-winning former foreign correspondents, see books as a launching pad for discussion. "Book reviews are partly a consumer service," Keller says, but they also "should be written for people who don't have any intention of buying the book."

So there's the recipe: Emphasize non-fiction books. Demote literary fiction. Promote (judiciously) commercial novels. Cover the book industry more and individual titles less.

Given its pivotal role in the marketing of books, the Times is likely to accelerate trends already apparent in book publishing. The potential implications are huge, suggesting bigger advances for blockbusters and celebrities, including those who wish to exploit their "public service" in the nation's capital, and scaled-down high-brow fiction lists, based on the assumption that if such books can't get ink in the toney Times, they won't have a prayer in USA Today or Entertainment Weekly.

Whether or not the Times' analysis of the market and its readers is correct, it's based on Keller’s reasoning. In the views expressed by its decision-makers, too few works of fiction rise to the level of a "novel of ideas"—that is, stories that express the concerns and issues of the day as Dickens did. And given these odds, the Times would rather devote resources to fostering debate than discovering and nurturing imaginative writing.

Enough quoting and time for reflection:

Finally, it’s become clear to me why the Times reviews books as they do, and why coverage of the Sunday Book Review has changed substantially since Chip McGrath left and Sam Tanenhaus replaced him. And why the book reviews in the daily Arts and Culture pages read as they do. Critiquing reviewers, their choices, or advertisers is akin to blaming a junior officer for the war in Iraq, when it’s the people at the top who give the marching orders.

My final questions are these: How have these journalists become the high priests of fiction? And do we not have novels of ideas, expressed cogently, imaginatively and skillfully that reflect life in our times? Or has this all disappeared with the death of Charles Dickens? I’d welcome your comments.

So might Bill Keller and the publisher of the Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. The phone number at the Times is 212-556-1234; the mailing address is 620 Eighth Avenue, New York City 10018.